The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (OBOC 2017-2018)

One Book, One College 2017-2018

Guides & Discussion Questions

Teaching Individual Chapters

With some context (provided by the instructor or the prologue), these chapters can be taught individually. They provide interesting scientific background, which could accompany units in the classroom about biology or epidemiology. Some also delve into ethical issues that would work well in an argument class/unit. Others provide profiles that would work well in a beginning composition course. - Kody Lightfoot, Chair of CSN's One Book/One College Program

Prologue:  “The Woman in the Photograph” (7 pages)

The Prologue is available on Rebecca Skloot's website  and presents the ethical overview and backstory of the HeLa case.  It provides enough information to begin a discussion or debate on the ethics of medical tissue use.  It could also be used as background reading for a simple argumentative essay prompt:  “Should doctors and researchers be required to gain permission from patients before using their tissue/DNA for research?  Should patients receive compensation for their tissue if the research leads to monetary gain for the researchers?  Write a thesis-based argumentative essay responding to one or both of these questions.”

Chapter 3: “Diagnosis and Treatment”

This short chapter gives medical/scientific background on the growth of cancer cells, particularly cervical carcinomas.  We also get information about early cancer treatment.

Chapter 4: “The Birth of HeLa”

This covers the harvesting of the HeLa cells and cell biology.

Chapter 7: “The Death and Life of Cell Culture”

Profile of Alexis Carrel, a surgeon—and eugenicist—who sought ways to preserve the “white race.”  He was falsely given credit for preserving chicken-heart cells.  (This is also a great chapter for the concept of irony.  Carrel did not, in fact, preserve the cell line.  The first cell line to be preserved belonged to Henrietta, an African American woman.)

Chapter 9: “Turner Station” 

More for a composition course, this chapter offers a well-written profile of Courtney “Mama” Speed.

Chapter 10: “The Other Side of the Tracks”

This is another well-written profile about Hector Henry (“Cootie”).

Chapter 13: “The Hela Factory”

This chapter discusses the reproduction and distribution of the cell line and ways in which the cells were used.  It also references the Tuskegee Syphilis Trials. 

Chapter 17: “Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable”

This chapter discusses experimentation on prisoners and others without consent.  It covers laws and ethics concerning patient experimentation as well as the Nuremberg Trials and the Nuremberg Code.  It offers a short argument/rebuttal about “informed consent.”

Chapter 18: “Strangest Hybrid”

This chapter covers somatic cell fusion (“cell sex”), cell regulation, and public concerns pertaining to genetics.


This offers a thorough exploratory argument about the issue of human tissue harvesting, experimentation, and informed consent.

Assignment Ideas & Lesson Plans

Schedule a Library Instruction Session

A CSN Librarian can create a customized instruction session for your specific research assignment relating to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.