Reading In Common Program

2015: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


About the Book

Book Cover"Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They
launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same." - Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks known as HeLa to the scientific world, was a poor, southern, African American farmer diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950s. While
in the hospital, samples of her cells were taken without her knowledge and became the first human cells to grow in a lab and remain alive outside the human body.

Henrietta's story continues today as her cells are still alive. The HeLa cells became one of the most important tools in medicine, assisting in the development of the polio vaccine, cancer drugs, invitro fertilization, and more. These cells have been used by millions of people, but Henrietta remained unknown until the publishing of this book. The HeLa cells were a huge part of medical advancement, but they brought pain and suffering to the Lacks' family. Behind the HeLa cells was a mother, a wife, a sister, and a friend, all who lost Henrietta in a tragic way. Though it was a struggle to accept the truth of what happened to their mother, the Lacks' family has begun to focus on Henrietta's postive contributions to today's scientific world. This book will challenge you to see all sides of the story.

lacks husband










Henrietta's cells

Henrietta and David



About the Author

When author, Rebecca Skloot, was in college, she first heard about Henrietta Lacks in her biology class and was eager to learn more about her. She was shocked to discover that no one knew anything about her. This set her on a mission to research and write this book that took more than a decade to write. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was Skloot's debut book and instantly hit the New York Bestseller list, where it remained for almost four years.

Skloot has a B.S. in Biological Sciences and a MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She specializes in narrative science writing and has written on a large range of topics including the HeLa cells, goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan. Skloot gives talks at conferences, universities, and other groups throughout the U.S. on numerous topics.

Two Lacks' family members are scheduled to speak at Gustavus on Tuesday, September 15, 2015, at 7pm in Alumni Hall. This Meet and Greet and Q&A is open to the public.


What do first-year students need to do?

  • Actively read this book before arriving on campus
  • Take notes
  • Highlight passages you think are important
  • Be prepared to discuss the book with your Gustie Greeter and group facilitator during orientation

Obtaining Your Copy

  • Books can be purchased for $9-$16 (used/new) each while on campus during summer registration. The Book Mark, located on the lower level of the Campus Center, has many copies of the book available with a special Reading in Common insert. If you miss the opportunity at registration, you may also purchase the book online at The Gustavus BookMark.

Goals and aims of the program

  • Encourage intellectual interaction among students in conjunction with faculty
  • Welcome students to the academic life of Gustavus
  • Facilitate a shared academic experience for all students
  • Emphasize reading as a significant component of the college experience
  • Tie together transition and integration experiences of first-year students
  • Provide opportunities for first-year students to explore issues and ideas relevant to our community and our world

How is the Reading In Common Program used?

All first-year students and Gustie Greeters read the book over the summer. These students will meet with faculty members during orientation to discuss the book. The book is often used as a reference or resource in students' First Term Seminars (FTS). A website is maintained with discussion boards and other resources relating to the book and its subject matter. Finally, the author and/or representative visits Gustavus in the Fall to speak about the book and the issues raised in the book.

History of the program

The Reading In Common Program began in the 2000–2001 Academic Year. Books in the Reading In Common Program have included:

  • 2015: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • 2014: Where Am I Wearing?, Where Am I Eating? by Kelsey Timmerman
  • 2013: A Pearl in the Storm by Tori Murden McClure
  • 2012: The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
  • 2011: The Wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn
  • 2010: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  • 2009: Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario
  • 2008: Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret
  • 2007: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
  • 2006: Honky by Dalton Conley
  • 2005: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • 2004: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  • 2003: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
  • 2002: The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill
  • 2001: The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  • 2000: The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

Books are chosen based on their literary quality, reading manageability (college level reading but not too long), interdisciplinary nature, and whether author is available for a campus appearance.


Have a suggestion for next year's Reading in Common book? Complete our suggestion form!