1) The Immortal Life of Henrietta
Lacks is the story of an African
American woman and her family that touches
on many big issues: bioethics, racism,
poverty, science, faith, and more. What threads
stand out to you and why?
Race and racism are woven throughout the
book, both in the story presented and in
the process of the research for the book.
Skloot was yet another white person asking
the Lacks family about Henrietta. How do
you feel about a white woman creating the
narrative of this story? How did her race
help or hinder Skloot in the writing and
researching of the book?
The author notes social inequities both
explicitly and implicitly. What parts of
Henrietta’s story might be different if
she had been white? What might have been
different if she had been middle or
What role did the deferential attitude
toward doctors in the early 20th
play in the interaction between Henrietta
and her family and Johns Hopkins? How has
that attitude toward doctors changed over
the decades? Do patients’ socioeconomic
differences affect the relationship today?
Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but her
cancer cells are still alive today. Do you
think they carry some essence of Henrietta?
How do you think you would perceive cells
from someone close to you that grow in
culture in a laboratory?
A week after you finish reading the book,
will you remember how cells divide? Do you
now have a better understanding of cell
biology? Either way, does it matter to you?
What does this book tell us about the
history of science and how science has
progressed since the 1950s? After reading
this book and considering the events it
details, what do you think are key factors
that influence scientific progress?
The book is filled with stories of people
used as research subjects, sometimes
without their knowledge, sometimes with
ill-informed consent, sometimes because of
their inability to understand (patients
with mental illness) or resist (prisoners).
Were you aware of this history before
reading the book? Do you think doctors and
researchers of the past had a fundamentally
different view of people than they do
Today the definition of ‘informed
consent’ remains murky. What did you
learn about what it means or doesn’t
mean? What does it mean to you?
In the years since the uniqueness of
Henrietta Lacks’s cells were discovered,
others have been identified with cells that
are valuable on the research market. In
Chapter Five, Skloot details the history of
John Moore, whose cells produced rare
proteins, and Ted Slavin, whose cells
produced valuable antibodies. All three
cases are quite different in many ways,
including how their doctors used the
information. Should individuals be able to
profit from their own cells? Should their
doctors? With consent? Do you think
Henrietta would have provided consent for
her cells to be taken and used had she been
adapted from: http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu/Discussion-Toolkit/Questions2011.pdf