Literature Study GuidesThe Immortal Life Of Henrietta LacksPrologue The Woman In The Photograph Summary

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Prologue: The Woman in the Photograph | Summary



Rebecca Skloot has been fascinated by the story of Henrietta Lacks since she was 16 years old. When she takes a community college biology class, her teacher talks about HeLa cells, which doctors took from Henrietta Lacks's body in 1951, shortly before she died of cancer. The HeLa cells are remarkable because a mutation rendered them immortal; this has allowed researchers worldwide to use them for thousands of studies, resulting in treatments ranging from a cure for polio to in-vitro fertilization. The teacher says nothing has been more important to medical research in the past century than the HeLa cells. He "matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought" says Henrietta Lacks was a black woman.

Skloot tries to find information on Henrietta; she reads magazine articles that show the same photo of Henrietta in a suit, smiling for the camera, with a hand on her hip. One article mentions that the Lacks family has only recently learned that Henrietta's cells are alive. Skloot notices "one member of the family remained voiceless: Henrietta's daughter, Deborah." Skloot makes it her mission to find out what happened to Henrietta. She will develop a close relationship with Deborah during a decade of research, chronicling the Lacks family's struggle to come to terms with their mother's legacy.


Skloot's persistence in researching a subject so shrouded in secrecy shows her determination as a journalist. Her desire to tell the Lacks family's story also gives her a new perspective on life. Lacks family members lead spiritual lives grounded in their religion. They believe Henrietta's spirit lives on and controls the outcome of events; Skloot, in contrast, thinks science has nothing to do with the supernatural. But although she and Lacks family members have widely divergent backgrounds and points of view, Skloot finds herself becoming close to the family—in particular, Deborah Lacks, who plays a major role in searching for the truth about her mother.

Skloot's findings give her insight to the effects of race and class, not just on medical treatment but on journalism and respect of privacy as well. All the information she gains leads her to ethical questions about not only what is acceptable in science journalism but also what the boundaries of ethics in medicine are, in addition to what has been done in the name of science to a family whose race and level of poverty put them in the position of being exploited without their knowledge.

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