Skip to main content

Henrietta LacksKNOXVILLE – A young woman checked into Johns Hopkins Hospital for cancer treatment. Her cells are biopsied and, when they show traits of immortality, are sold for medical research worldwide. It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie.

In fact, it’s a true story, and the subject of the award-winning book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, will visit the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus on Monday, August 15. The lecture begins at 9:00 a.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena, and is free and open to the public. Parking will be available in the G10 parking garage, next to the arena.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the university’s 2011 Life of the Mind book selection. Life of the Mind is a common reading experience that gives first-year students their initial taste of academic life at UT Knoxville. The program is in its eighth year.

“The Life of the Mind program was created to give our incoming freshmen this common experience, but also to foster international and intercultural awareness,” said Sally McMillan, vice provost for academic affairs. “This book covers issues including health, poverty, science, racism, and family relationships. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of African American undergraduates at UT, so the book is significant as it examines the contributions of an African American woman to the foundation of modern medicine.”

The nonfiction book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a young mother of four whose cancer cells were biopsied during treatment in 1951. Unlike other cells, those cells continued to grow and reproduce in laboratory conditions and became known as HeLa cells. The cells are still in widespread use today and are one of the most commonly used cells in medical research. They have been vital in the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.

The book—which has been named a best book of 2010 by more than sixty critics and sources—chronicles Skloot’s relationship with Lacks’s children and other relatives, who were unaware of the use of their mother’s cells for many years. Family members have received no income from the use of their mother’s cells and remain largely uneducated and living in poverty.

Skloot is an award-winning science writer whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Discover, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is her debut book which took more than ten years to research and write. It has won numerous awards and is being made into a television movie for HBO. Skloot also is now president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides grants, funded by proceeds from the book, to the Lacks family as well as others with similar needs, including descendants of research subjects used in the famous Tuskegee Syphilis Studies and others.

This year, for the first time, Life of the Mind is part of a zero-credit, pass-fail course that all first-year students must complete between orientation and the first few weeks of class.

As part of the course, students will read the book, attend a discussion session and the author’s lecture and complete a creative project. Students also must attend at least one of four panels led by UT’s faculty and top researchers focused on the book’s themes from science and medicine to legality, ethics, and issues of race and socio-economic divides. Students also complete technology and academic success tutorials and participate in activities designed to help them make the transition from high school to college.

“This year, the administration is doing what we can to ensure that the program places a bigger emphasis on student participation and establishes a multitude of programming related to the book’s themes,” said McMillan.

For more information on the Life of the Mind series, please visit

C O N T A C T :

Beth Gladden (865-974-9008,