The Immortal Life of
Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot
ELA Grade 6
Explain how ethics, race,
medicine, and scientific
discovery impacted Henrietta
Lacks and her family.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Looking at the Literature
Chapter Two: The Life of Henrietta
Chapter One:
Looking at the Literature
Learning Outcome:
Students will be able to determine central ideas or
Chapter Three: Research and Medicine
● HeLa Cells
● Ethical issues in Biomedical Research
Culminating Questions
Culminating Activity
The Immortal Life: A
Henrietta Lacks was a young 31 yearold woman with 5 children that she loved dearly when
the tumor in her cervix was discovered for the first
time. Soon after Henrietta would begin treatment for
an aggressive form of cervical cancer in the colored
ward of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
While she was being treated, a sample of her cancer
cells were taken without her knowledge, which was
typical practice for that time. As it turns out, the doctor
who studied Henrietta’s cells discovered that her cells
were unlike any cells he had ever seen – they were
immortal. HeLa cells became one the most valuable
tools in scientific medicine, and yet Henrietta would
never have any idea, and for some time, her family
wasn’t aware either.
By the 1970s, however, her name was
publicly revealed and her family found out. Several
years later, in 1988 a woman named Rebecca Skloot
heard about a woman named Henrietta and her cells
in her college biology class. From that point on,
Rebecca was determined to find out what else there
was to the story.
A couple of years later, she came across the papers from
the first HeLa Cancer Control Symposium, which took
place in Atlanta in 1996. At the conference, she persuaded
the conference's organizer, Roland Pattillo, to put her in
touch with Henrietta's family. Pattillo agrees, he warns her
to be careful as the family has suffered greatly as a result
of HeLa and the way in which they have been treated by
some members of the scientific community.
Skloot's call to Pattillo was the beginning of a
decade of research in which she becomes determined to
give a voice to Henrietta. Skloot worked hard to gain the
trust of the Lacks family. They had a tough time believing
that Skloot had their best interest at heart because they
were angry and distressed about HeLa and the way in
which they had been treated in the past. Over several
years, Skloot bonds with and forms a trusting relationship
with the Lacks family, who begin to realize that she is not
trying to exploit them in the slightest. She becomes
particularly close to Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who
desperately wants to learn everything she can about the
mother who died when she was just a toddler. Deborah
also wants her mother's story to be told.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an
overlap between the Lacks family and the world of
scientific research that allows Skloot to engage her
readers in various fascinating debates about scientific
ethics, racism and poverty4
Important Topics to
Racial Inequality
During Henrietta's time, racial inequity and
segregation existed in the medical field, just as in
the other public sectors.
African-American patients, doctors and
nurses were typically restricted to providing and
receiving medical treatment in separate
hospitals. When Henrietta felt sick, Johns
Hopkins Hospital was her only choice for a
hospital, since it was the only one in proximity
that treated black patients. Even in the hospital,
Henrietta needed to go to separate waiting room
and wards for the colored people..
Another primary example of racial
inequality in this story is when Henrietta's first
daughter, Elsie, was treated. Elsie was
considered "deaf and dumb" and sent to the
Hospital for the Negro Insane and died there at
the age of sixteen. Deborah Lacks and Rebecca
Skloot found out later that the conditions in the
hospital in the 1950s were abysmal, and the
cause of Elsie's death remained unknown.
The importance of family is a recurring
message throughout the book. Henrietta’s family
dealt with major difficulties such, as poverty, could
not afford health care, and most of all, living most of
their lives, not knowing who their mother was, or
about the cells that were taken from her body. While
they didn’t always see eye to eye, they always
supported one another in the journey to discover who
her mother was, and the legacy she left behind.
Go to our class blog and post
about your thoughts and
connections to Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta and Day’s Children
Click here to
watch a video
about informed
Lawrence Lacks- Was their first born
Elsie Lacks- Was the second born
David Jr. “Sonny” Lacks- The third child
Deborah “Dale” Lacks- The fourth child
Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman(born Joe Lacks)The fifth child.
Immediate Family
Eliza Lacks Pleasant- Henrietta’s mother
Gladys Lacks- Henrietta’s sister
Johnny Pleasant- Henrietta’s father
Tommy Lacks- Henrietta’s grandfather
Ethics - Informed Consent
The primary ethical issue in The Immortal life of
Henrietta Lacks is found in the murky application of
informed consent. The idea of informed consent
originated in Ancient Greece. In his article regarding the
history of informed consent, Dr. Pete Murray states that
informed consent is, “patient participation in decision
making for medical treatment was considered
Though informed consent was not universally
applied to the same degree, it reared its head again in
1914 with the case of Schloendorff v. Society of New
York Hospital. In this case, Justice Cardozo ruled “Every
human being of adult years and sound mind has a right
to determine what should be done to his body.” Despite
the clarity of informed consent upheld in the courtroom,
the cultural norms of the 1950s’ were much different
from present day.
Different Perspectives...
The social treatment of African Americans
played an integral role in their medical care;
specifically in the Tuskegee syphilis study and the
medical treatment of Henrietta Lacks. During
Henrietta’s treatment, the Nuremberg Code of Ethics
was fresh in the mind of scientists, but the quest for
scientific advancement proved to outweigh their
moral obligation to the patient’s right of consent.
Despite the Nuremberg Code of Ethics firmly
announced, it was not necessarily widely accepted
and practiced by doctors around the world.
In today’s medical community we have had
the privilege of hindsight, and can attempt to learn
from the medical malpractice of the past. Contrary to
the 1950s’ application of informed consent, today
according to the FDA 21 CFR Parts 50, 312, and
812, “applicable clinical trials initiated on or after
March 7, 2012, informed consent documents must be
in compliance with the new requirement in 21 CFR §
50.25(c) and include a specific statement that refers
to the trial’s description.” Many of our ethical
practices such as beneficence and informed consent
have more strictly been applied in modern medicine.
One important voice to note in The Immortal Life
of Henrietta Lacks is of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.
Deborah’s comments and actions throughout the book,
reveal her ambivalence about being the daughter of
Henrietta Lacks, pride in knowing that her mother’s
cells have contributed so much to science, confusion
as to what her role was, anger that her family has
received so little, and a sense of loss in not having
known her mother.
Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in
her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its
path. As she coasted to a more mature 30 years old,
she shifted away from the mentality of much of the
family, which partly was to try to make money off of the
HeLa cells from Johns Hopkins or anyone that would
offer it. Their endeavor included handing out pamphlets
and other reading material explaining their version of
the story of Henrietta.
Deborah bought a dictionary, a notebook and
some science textbooks and began taking notes and
making a real effort to learn more about cells. She
educated herself and almost used it as a coping
mechanism, while writing her thoughts down in her
journal next to important lines from the textbook.
Deborah, for the longest time, is convinced that
scientists were trying to kill her family in order to
obtain their cells. That was clearly not the case; most
scientists actually had honest intentions. Once
Henrietta’s story became more known, many of them
believed that Deborah and the rest of the Lacks
family deserved to have that thoroughly explained to
them in order to acquire complete understanding.
Obviously, the author, Rebecca Skloot’s voice
is very present throughout the whole book. From the
start, Skloot makes it clear she believes justice must
be served for Henrietta and the Lacks family. Skloot
notes that these cells can be found research facilities
all over the globe, but other than on rare occasions,
there is rarely much discussion of the person behind
these cells (or in fact, behind any cells used in
research). Rebecca started the book with a bit of fear
because it would have been
easy for her to sensationalize the history of the
person behind these cells. But in fact, Skloot is
meticulous in researching the facts behind the story
and in trying to explain what happened in the
context of the times (e.g., she does a good job of
describing how concepts of "informed consent" have
changed over time).
Instead of simply portraying scientists as evil
or blaming them for "stealing" HeLa cells, Skloot
portrays scientists as they really are - frequently well
intentioned but a bit naive at times about the
repercussions of what they are doing. Even though
she narrates the entire book, she remains
completely neutral in the throughout the whole
Henrietta’s family vs.
Johns Hopkins
There are two types of conflict that are
present in this book. The first is the internal conflict
that Henrietta’s family dealt with in thinking that
John’s Hopkins had been profiting of their mother’s
cells after all these years. They were angry that they
had been deceived and felt that they were deserving
of the profits as Henrietta’s successors.
However, this conflict came to a resolution
when it became clear to Henrietta’s family,
specifically her children Deborah and
Zakariyya, that John’s Hopkins didn’t make a
cent, let alone millions, off of their mother’s
cells, like they had originally thought. This
seemed to be a turning point for Henrietta’s
family. Their frustration and anger built up over
the years slowly started to dwindle and
morphed into a curiosity to learn and be
informed about their mother’s immortal cells.
Deborah vs. Rebecca
There is also an external conflict
between Deborah and Rebecca. As Skloot and
Deborah embark on their journey to discover
more about Henrietta and her cells, Skloot
does everything she can to help foster trust
between Deborah and herself. Somedays,
Deborah would be open-minded and receptive
to the thoughts and suggestions that Rebecca
had to offer. But on other days, Deborah would
flip a switch, becoming paranoid and suspicious
that Rebecca had bad intentions.
Fortunately, Rebecca was always very patient with
Deborah, calmly reminding her that she worked for
herself and had no intention of making any money or
exposing her family negatively. Still, Deborah seemed
hesitant around Rebecca, she wouldn’t even allow
Rebecca to ride in the same car when they went on trips.
This particular conflict came to a resolution when
Deborah physically aggressed towards Rebecca and
Rebecca lost her patience, jerked free of Deborah’s grip
and yelled back at her. From that point on, the tension
eased, and Deborah was finally able to trust Rebecca.
Comprehension Questions
What are the major themes of this book? Briefly
describe each theme.
What parts of this story might have been
different if Henrietta and her family had been
In your own words, describe the plot of the the
Based on the information you have been given,
who is the narrator?
Write a letter as Deborah to her mother, Henrietta. In
the letter, indicate how Deborah feels towards her
mother in her absence and how she intends on doing
her mother justice.
check up
can’t afford
white and rich get it
my mother was black
black poor people don’t have the
money to pay for it
mad yes I am mad
we were used by taking our blood
and lied to
We had to pay for our own medical,
can you relieve that.
John Hopkins Hospital and all other
that has my mother cells, don’
give her
-Deborah Lacks
BLOG BREAK!pg. 280
Go to our class blog and answer the
corresponding questions to this
click here
to listen to
a creative
song about
As you watch the
video, listen
carefully and write
down as many
facts as you can
about Henrietta
and her life.
Chapter Two:
The Life of Henrietta Lacks
Learning Outcome:
Students will be able to identify who Henrietta
Lacks is and provide details from the text to
support their understanding.
Henrietta Lacks was an African
American woman born in Roanoke, Virginia on
August 1st 1920. Henrietta grew up on a farm and
lived with her grandfather. Every morning Henrietta
and her cousin Day woke up really early to milk the
cows and feed the chickens, hogs, and horses. The
two of them tended a garden filled with corn,
peanuts, and greens, then headed to the tobacco
fields with their cousins. Henrietta spent most of her
young life planting tobacco behind mule-drawn
When Henrietta and her cousin Day grew older
they then got married and continued to work on the
tobacco fields where they were struggling with work
because of tobacco companies supplying free
cigarettes to soldiers. Later Henrietta and Day moved to
Turner Station to start a new life where her husband
Day worked at the largest steel plant in the world. Later
Henrietta and Day had 5 children. Lawrence, Elsie,
David “Sonny”, Deborah, Joseph, and Rahman.
In 1951 Henrietta showed up at Johns Hopkins
hospital which was one of the only hospitals that would
treat black patients complaining about abdominal
bleeding. One of the doctors at the hospital named
TeLinde decided to operate on Henrietta because they
had suspected that Henrietta may have cervical cancer.
TeLinde and another doctor Jones developed a theory
about cervical cancer that, if correct, could save lives of
millions of women.
Henrietta and her family were trusting the
hospital to treat her accurately but never questioned
their thoughts or ideas about Henrietta’s health
because black patients felt lucky to even be seen by
a doctor during that era. TeLinde often used patients
from the public wards of the hospital for research
without their knowledge. Henrietta knew that Hopkins
was the only place for her to get treated that she
placed all her trust in the doctors at this hospital to
treat her accurately.
On February 5th, 1951 Jones got Henrietta's
biopsy report back from the lab and told her that the
cancer was malignant. Henrietta told her husband
Day that she would need to go back to the hospital to
do some more tests and to get some medicine. The
doctors then checked her urine, blood, and lungs,
along with sticking tubes in her bladder and nose.
Several studies have showed that a treatment using
radium would be beneficial to her treatment and
safer than surgery.
On October 4th, 1951 Henrietta died of
cervical cancer at the age of 31. After Henrietta's
death the HeLa strain revolutionized medical
research. During much of this outbreak of research
of Henrietta's cells, her family was unaware of how
much their mother and wife contributed to medical
The Lacks family learned about the HeLa cells in
the 1970s. In 1973, a scientist contacted family members,
seeking blood samples and other genetic materials.
Inquiries from the family regarding the use of HeLa cells,
and publications that included their own genetic
information, were largely ignored. The case gained new
visibility in 1998, when the BBC screened an awardwinning documentary on Lacks and HeLa.
Comprehension Questions
Describe the character traits of Henrietta Lacks.
Why did Henrietta go to John Hopkins Hospital rather
than to another hospital?
How did the general public’s respectful opinion of
doctors during the early 1900s impact the interaction
between Henrietta and her family and the doctors of
Johns Hopkins?
Do you think Henrietta would have provided consent for
her cells to be taken and used in the ways that were?
Write an essay stating your opinion and supporting it
with convincing reasons. Be sure to explain your
reasons in detail. Activity
Watch this video and post
a blog about what her
doctors discovered about
her abdominal pain.
Click here to watch the
Chapter Three:
Research and Medicine
Learning Outcomes:
Students will be able to identify what HeLa cells
were and the impact that they had on the public's
overall health.
Students will be able to identify the difference
between medical practice in the 1900’S and
HeLa Cells:
Henrietta went into her doctor’s office to receive
treatment on the tumor that was growing inside her
cervix. However, what she didn’t know is that he was
also collecting tissue samples from her cervix to be
given to Dr. George Gey, the head of tissue-culture
research at Johns Hopkins.
Once given to Dr. Gey, Henrietta’s cells would
be begin the cell culture process. In technical terms,
when cells undergo the culture process it means that
the cells are being grown under controlled conditions.
Dr. Gey cultured Henrietta’s cells with the help of his
lab assistant Mary Kubicek, just like they had done
with the countless amounts of other cell samples in
Gey’s lab, most of which didn’t live long.
However, to their surprise, merely a couple
days later they found that Henrietta’s cells, labeled
“HeLa” after the first two initials in her name, were
multiplying by the millions. In fact, HeLa cells grew
twenty times faster than normal cells. It was at that
point that Dr. Gey had realized they he may have
found and grown the first immortal human cells. In
other words, the HeLa cells can divide an unlimited
number of times when cultured in a lab.
Henrietta’s cells were so valuable because
they allowed scientists to perform experiments that
would have been impossible to do with living human
beings. HeLa cells also produced much faster than
normal cells, and thus produced results faster. In the
early nineties, a scientist at Yale had used HeLa cells
to discover that human cancer cells contain an
enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds their
telomeres. The presence of telomerase indicated that
cells could keep regenerating their telomeres
indefinitely. This explained the mechanics behind
HeLa’s immortal nature. Essentially, the telomerase
constantly regrew themselves so that they never died.
Once HeLa cells began to develop their
reputation, Dr. Gey gave the cells to any scientist
that requested them if they planned to use them for
the benefit of science. During that time in history,
permission from the cell ‘donor’ or their family was
not required. As time went on and the demand for
HeLa cells grew, they became instrumental tools in
endless amounts of medical research. For instance,
HeLa cells were used to test the first polio vaccine,
to test the effects of radiation and toxic substances,
gene mapping, cloning, cancer research, AIDS
research, and much more. Much of our
understanding of basic cell physiology and cancer
biology is due to HeLa cell research.
By 1952, HeLa cells were travelling by planes,
trains, and automobiles (and pack mule) all over the
world. HeLa cells eventually even went into space.
Within a few years companies began selling HeLa
cells and the media required to grow them. This led
to standardization and optimization of cell culture
and allowed scientists quick and cheap access to
HeLa cells. Eventually, it launched the cell culture
industry, which today is a multibillion dollar
There is no record of Hopkins or Dr. Gey accepting
money for HeLa cells, but many for-profit cell banks and
biotech companies have. The American Type Culture
Collection, a nonprofit whose funds go mainly toward
maintaining and providing pure cultures for science has
been selling HeLa cells since the sixties. At the time
when The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was
published, they were selling HeLa cells for $256 per vial.
Click here to
watch a video
of HeLa cells
Go to our class blog and
respond the questions
regarding HeLa Cells.
Ethical Issues In Biomedical Research:
There are several things that come up when
taking a closer look at the biomedical research that
was done during the 1950s-1970s versus now. At the
time of HeLa cell dissemination informed consent
was at the forefront of discussion, whereas in our
current era we have struggled with two core
elements of ethics in biomedical research: privacy
and managing conflicts of interest. In 1996 the
HIPAA privacy rule was enacted establishing
nationwide security standards and safeguards for the
use of electronic healthcare information as well as
the creation of privacy standards for protected health
information. HIPAA went through various iterations
prior to its evolution into its current version issued in
2002. Similar to the response that occurred in
reaction to federal policy outlining requirements for
informed consent, researchers of today have oft
complained that HIPAA has been an impediment to
scientific progress and research. The latest HIPAA
debate has revolved around federal requirements
that medical providers and insurers notify patients in
the event of discovering a privacy breach. Multiple
examples of such privacy breaches have been
described in the media ranging from stolen laptops to
identity theft.
The story of Henrietta Lacks was interesting from
a historical perspective. It took decades to sort through
informed consent. In contrast, the debates over health
privacy and conflict of interest are still in their infancy.
The fact that remains similar, however, is that the
underprivileged, and medically “illiterate” are far more
likely to be the subject of ethical violations than others—
even in today’s era. In the case of the Lacks family,
poor communication and lack of confidence on the part
of the medical establishment that the family would be
able to grasp the content of the discussion, resulted in a
lack of informed consent.
Writing Activity
Create a graphic
organizer that
indicates the
differences and
similarities between
medical research
practices in the 1900’s
and in the 2000’s
click here to
examples of
Comprehension Questions
The Affordable Care Act: Medical
Assistance for Henrietta’s Family?
In plain terms, the Affordable Care Act is a
law enacted to ensure that all Americans have
access to affordable health insurance. It does this
by offering consumers discounts (known as tax
credits) on government-sponsored health insurance
plans, and by expanding the Medicaid assistance
program to include more people who don't have it
in their budgets to pay for health care. Henrietta’s
family did not reap any profits from the sales of the
HeLa cells. In fact, her family can’t even afford
health insurance. With that being said, perhaps this
law would be beneficial to Henrietta and her
Connection between science and
There are several occurrences
throughout the book in which Skloot uses
figurative language to describe cells. For instance,
Skloot compares cells to a fried egg under the
lense of microscope. She also compares the cells’
cytoplasms to factories that work 24 hours a day 7
days a week that mass produce the energy to
keep the cells running. Skloot carefully crafts her
description of the cells in such a way that biology
and literature successfully overlap.
Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but her cancer cells
are still alive today. Do you think they carry some
essence of Henrietta?
How might this story have changed if Dr. George
Gey was the narrator? How might the point of view
be different?
Making healthcare affordable to all Americans has
been a recent political focus. What does the story of
Henrietta Lacks and her family add to this debate?
Write a either a Haiku, cinquain or free verse poem
about HeLa cells.
Click here
to watch a
video on
Care Act
Dr. George
Gey’s Obituary
Directions: Post your responses to the
culminating questions on our class blog.
What did you learn about ethics, race,
and medicine after investigating Henrietta
Lacks in this ebook?
What did you learn about the connection
between Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa
cells? Write a short description of HeLa
cells using one metaphor and one simile.
What are the differences between the
ways in which medicine was practiced
during Henrietta’s time and the ways in
which medicine is practiced today?
What is the genre of The Immortal Life of
Henrietta Lacks? Provide 3 pieces of
evidence from the text to support your
Culminating Activity
First: Watch the BBC documentary
Then: Pretend you are Journalist writing an article for the
“New York Times” in the year 2030. In your article, you
are to write about how important Henrietta Lacks was to
scientific research and what that means for the people of
2030. (Hint: this also means making predictions based on
what you have learned). At the end of your article, you are
to add a critique of the book that includes your personal
critique of the book and the discussion of 4 literary
Be sure to include:
Brief history of Henrietta - who she was and where
she came from (ie: family background, where she
grew up, ethnicity, etc.)
A description of HeLa cells and why they were
important to biomedical research.
Ethical Issues surrounding Henrietta’s story.
Photos, videos, or anything else you feel is
Click here
to see
Biomedical Research - Also known as medical
research. The basic research, applied research, or
translational research conducted to aid and
support the development body of knowledge in the
field of medicine.
Cells- The basic structural, functional, and
biological unit of all known living organisms. Cells
are the smallest unit of life that can replicate
independently, and are often called the "building
blocks of life".
Character Traits - all the aspects of a person's
behavior and attitudes that make up that person's
External Conflict - A struggle between a
character and an outside force.
Ethical- Pertaining to or dealing with morals or the
principles of morality;pertaining to right and wrong
in conduct. Being in accordance with the rules or
standards for right conduct or practice, especially
the standards of a profession
HeLa Cells- The HeLa cell line is named after Henrietta
Lacks, Researchers used cells sampled from that tumor to
create the HeLa cell line, the first and now by far the most
commonly used in cell biology laboratories.ImmortalLiving forever, never dying
Internal Conflict - A struggle that takes place within the
character’s own mind.
Polio Virus- Polio, or poliomyelitis: is a highly
contagious viral infection that can lead to paralysis,
breathing problems, or even death.Polio can be classified
as either symptomatic or asymptomatic. About 95% of all
cases display no symptoms (asymptomatic polio), and
between 4% and 8% of cases display symptoms
(symptomatic polio).
Sensationalize - in a way that provokes public interest
and excitement, at the expense of accuracy.
Telomeres - a compound structure at the end of a
Telomerase - an enzyme that adds nucleotides to
telomeres, especially in cancer cells.
Vaccine - a substance used to stimulate the production of
antibodies and provide immunity against one or several
diseases, prepared from the causative agent of a disease,
its products, or a synthetic substitute, treated to act as an
antigen without inducing the34
Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of
Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown.
New York Times (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2015,
Classroom Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18,
2015, from
DrDialogue. (n.d.). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from
Ethics of Informed Consent and the Legacy of Henrietta
Lacks. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2015, from
Hanks, J., & Frederick, B. (1975). Obituary: Dr. George
Otto Gey 1899−1970. The Journal of Cancer Research.
Rebecca Skloot Journalist, Teacher, Author of The
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (n.d.). Retrieved
February 24, 2015, from
Rebecca Skloot Journalist, Teacher, Author of The
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (n.d.). Retrieved
February 20, 2015, from
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - SuperSummary
Study Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015,
The Way of All Flesh by Adam Curtis. (n.d.). Retrieved
February 20, 2015, from
Where Biology and Literature Intersect: "The Immortal
Life of Henrietta Lacks" : (n.d.).
Retrieved February 20, 2015, from