portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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So you’re going to teach Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. While it has challenging content—racism and dense scientific material—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will give them unique insight into scientific ethics, patients' rights, and important themes surrounding the history of racism, poverty, and medicine in American history. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 2010
  • Recommended Grade Level: 11-12
  • Approximate Word Count: 101,000
  • Author: Rebecca Skloot
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Self
  • Narration: First-Person and Third-Person Omniscient
  • Setting: Baltimore, Maryland, US
  • Structure or Dominant Literary Devices: Prose, Science Writing, Personal Narrative
  • Tone: Curious, Observational

Texts that Go Well with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley, is a dystopian novel set in the World State, where a futuristic government rules over most of the globe. In the World State, humans are genetically modified, anesthetized, and organized within an intelligence-based social hierarchy. When protagonist Bernard travels to a reservation outside of the World State, he experiments with bringing its inhabitants to the tightly controlled world he knows but ultimately fails. Many find this novel particularly relevant in the modern era, when prescription drug use is on the rise and technology plays an increasing role in daily life and governance as a means of pacification.

The Color Purple (1982), by Alice Walker, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that explores the life of Celie, a black girl living in the impoverished South. The epistolary novel follows Celie’s development from an abused child to a woman who takes control of her destiny. Celie confronts many of the same struggles and racial inequalities as Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.

Hidden Figures (2016), by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a work of nonfiction that explores the unsung role black women played in American aeronautics during the 1960s. Known as “human computers,” Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson overcame the prejudice and bigotry that were pervasive in the American South to make significant contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering.

Never Let Me Go (2005), by Kazuo Ishigiro, is a novel about a dystopian society in which human clones are raised to be organ donors. Through its first-person narrator, Kathy, readers learn that clones are raised with the knowledge of their role and are conditioned to placidly accept it. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Never Let Me Go explores complex themes surrounding medical ethics and informed consent.

The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018), by Brooke Bolander, is a novella that creates a fictional intersection between two historical tragedies: the execution of an abused circus elephant and the deaths of the radium girls, female factory workers who were poisoned by radioactive paint. Similar to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Only Harmless Great Thing explores themes surrounding informed consent, reparations, and the healing power of solidarity.

The Radium Girls (2017), by Kate Moore, is a nonfiction account of the plight of the early-20th-century Radium Girls, factory workers who developed radiation poisoning from working with radium paint. The book explores similar ethical issues as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, grappling with questions surrounding informed consent and accountability. The Radium Girls also offers students a chance to further engage with nonfiction as a genre, with a focus on 20th-century American history.

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