In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951—and left behind an inexplicably immortal line of cells known as HeLa. Henrietta Lacks, whose cells—harvested without her knowledge or consent—contributed to scientific advancements as varied as the polio vaccine, treatments for cancers and viruses, in-vitro fertilization, and the impact of space travel on human cells.
The story is also about her children, who were later used in research without their consent and who’ve never benefited from the commercialization of HeLa cells, though the cells have helped biotech companies make millions of dollars. Part detective story, part scientific odyssey, and part family saga, The Immortal Life’s multi-layered approach raises fascinating questions about race, class, and bioethics in America.
Rebecca Skloot has a B.S. in biological sciences and a MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. Skloot is currently working on a new book about the human-animal bond from her home in Chicago.
After vigorous debate, the committee chose The Immortal Life for its engaging prose and its relevance to a wide range of interests on campus. A reviewer for the New York Times has called it “a thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics, and crippling poverty.”