Henrietta Lacks was poor, illiterate, and dying of cancer in 1951 when doctors discovered that cells from her cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, didn’t quickly die in a culture dish the way others did. Inexplicably, they survived and kept reproducing.
The HeLa line, named for the initial letters of Lacks’ name, ultimately became the world’s first “immortal” laboratory-grown cells, reproduced by the billions and playing a vital role in medical advances including the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. But while many research organizations and companies have profited from the sale of Lacks’ cells over the years, her family has not.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, is this year’s common reading requirement for first year students at Montclair State University. The book explores the life and legacy of Lacks, who died of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at age 31. Skloot writes that over the past 60 years, scientists have grown more than 50 million metric tons of Lacks’ cells—an astounding amount. Yet, for years, the Lacks family was told little about the existence of the HeLa cell line.
The book was selected as Montclair Book 2012 because of the many questions it raises about race, bioethics, the politics of science, and a person’s rights to his or her own body. “We wanted something that was significant, meaningful, and relevant,” says Melinda Knight, professor of English and director of the Center for Writing Excellence, which offers writing consultation services to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. “The medical and ethical issues raised in this book are absolutely paramount. It’s a terrific book—the kind of book that you can’t put down.”
An established science journalist and book critic, Skloot spent ten years researching and writing the book, which was published in 2010. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has won many awards, including the 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Excellence in Science Writing, among others.
The New York Times bestseller will be integrated into the University’s curriculum and will be discussed in two academic courses taken by first-year students—College Writing I and New Student Seminar. In addition, David Lacks, Jr., one of Lacks’ five children, will speak at Montclair State on September 27, 2012, at 7:00 p.m. as part of Constitution Day.
“This is a book that will engage students in the heart of intellectual inquiry—in critical thinking, reading, and writing, the very things they can expect to do when they enter college,” Knight explains.
Incoming freshman Sarah Kilian-Meneghin has plunged into the book, which she says, “is so much more interesting than I expected. The author pulls you into this fascinating story that is as much about the science of HeLa cells as it is about a family dealing with the loss of a parent.”
Montclair Book 2012 is jointly sponsored by the Center for Writing Excellence, CHSS, the First-Year Writing Program, and Student Development and Campus Life.
For more information about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, visit the author’s website: www.rebeccaskloot.com.