Science journalist Rebecca Skloot spent eleven years researching and writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks —the untold story of the woman who unknowingly saved countless lives with cancer cells taken from her body at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

Skloot moves back and forth between Henrietta's story and the story of her family as they come to discover that Henrietta's "immortal" cells led to Jonas Salk's polio vaccine and to invaluable research in cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation, and many other advances in medicine. Skloot examines both the scientific and ethical implications of removing Henrietta's cancer cells from her body without consent, and reveals the disparity between Henrietta's contributions to medicine and her family's inability to pay for proper medical care.

Though the author's explanations of scientific and medical phenomena are fairly comprehensive, it might be helpful to some students for the teacher to gather supplemental material that will help students with their comprehension of events in the book.

Furthermore, it is also important for the teacher to spend time discussing the multi-faceted issues involving the intersection of medical advancement and ethics. Each reader will have his or her own opinion about Skloot's approach to the issues raised by Henrietta's cells, and it is important for everyone to be informed and use specific details from the text during discussion.


Key Facts:

  • Length: 381 pages
  • Publication Date: 2010
  • Lexile Measure: 1140
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

In 1951, thirty-one-year-old Henrietta Lacks received treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, then the only hospital in the Baltimore area that would treat black patients. During one of her treatments, Dr. George Gey removed samples of Henrietta's cancer cells and kept them in culture, where, amazingly, they continued to grow at a rapid pace. No other cells had survived in culture for more than a few days, and none had grown.

Rebecca Skloot examines the interaction between medicine, race, and class, bringing forth questions that many people fail to think about when they seek treatment. Sher uncovers Henrietta's story —long been forgotten by history —and cements her legacy as an unwitting hero.

Content Warning: This book deals candidly with the effects of cancer on the body and contains some discussion of sexuality.

Your students will love:

  • How the author makes science easy to understand
  • Learning about Henrietta and her family

Students may have problems with:

  • Some of the technical aspects of cells
  • The description of Henrietta's suffering

Objectives for Teaching The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  • Analyze and discuss the arguments Skloot makes on behalf of scientific advancement and the Lacks family, respectively.
  • Elucidate the role of Henrietta's cells as outlined by Skloot in the book.
  • Analyze Skloot's writing style and discuss whether she remains impartial when discussing ethical issues in the book.
  • Discuss the Lacks family's journey in discovering the significance of Henrietta's cells.
  • Determine how Skloot comes to a conclusion about the issues presented in the book.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • First-person Narrator
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Simile

Themes and Motifs

Race and Class — The level of Henrietta and her family's medical care is determined by their race and class, making it difficult for them to receive or afford treatment.

Related Works:

Science and Technology — Skloot discusses the medical advances scientists have made using Henrietta's cells in depth.

Related Works:

Morality — Skloot presents readers with the pros and cons of removing Henrietta's cells without telling her or her family.

Related Works:


  • Best Book of the Year (New York Times, Oprah, NPR, and Entertainment Weekly)
  • Goodreads Choice Awards, Best Nonfiction, and Best Debut Author


A film adaptation from HBO is currently in production. The cast will include Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Rocky Carroll.

External Resources

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