September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Maya Wildgoose

Note: The following book review was written for the language and literacy class in the teacher credential program at the University of California, Davis. The author, Maya Wildgoose, (MS Geology, SS Science Credential) is student teaching at an urban high school in the Greater Sacramento area. – Rick Pomeroy, CSTA Past-President

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Crown Publishers, 2010, 330 pages) is a non-fiction book written by a biologist-turned-journalist who had a personal fascination with the woman behind the famous “HeLa” cells. HeLa cells are named after the woman from whom the cells came from, Henrietta Lacks, and are used in labs around the world to help scientists study human cells. Author Rebecca Skloot was a high school dropout who took a biology class at a community college. Skloot was surprised when none of her teachers could tell her about the woman behind the cells except that were from an African-American woman who had died of cervical cancer in the 1950’s. Driven by her wish to know more, the author researched Henrietta and her family. The story that emerges is one centered squarely on bioethics and how it was possible for her family to be in the dark about the use of Henrietta’s cells until 20 years after they had been taken and cultured in labs around the world. The book takes a unique perspective for a science book: the human side. Though the author goes into some detail about the science, it is really more of a story of the woman herself and the impacts the science has had on her family.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was written for a general audience, including those not familiar with the science involved in the story. Skloot does a great job explaining complex science in simple words and makes this book accessible for 9th grade readers and older. It would be very appropriate for a biology or anatomy class but could also be used in a social science or English class. The theme of bioethics provides a great backdrop to stage a debate on how it could have been handled differently. On her website, Ms. Skloot has a long (26 page) teacher’s guide to each chapter of the book, discussion/writing prompts for English, social science, and science classes. She also includes connections to the Common Core State Standards. With all of this additional material, it would be easy for a teacher to select which parts of the book would suit the needs of the class. Due to the length of the book, it would likely be necessary to choose appropriate sections to assign. There are some intense scenes and language in this book, including a chapter about the sexual abuse of one of Henrietta’s daughters. If one was to assign the entire book, it would require parental or guardian knowledge and signatures.

Overall, this is a fascinating book and one that could really help students make connections with bigger ideas and controversies in biology. Both the science and the bioethical aspects are well explained. One teacher who regularly assigns the entire book claims that the students absolutely love reading it. I can see why- it is hard to stop reading before you find out how the story ends!

Maya Wildgoose is a student in the Teacher Credential Program at UC Davis and is a member of CSTA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

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California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

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Written by Peter AHearn

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