Her name was Henrietta Lacks. Maybe it’s not a household name, but Marietta College’s student body will become familiar with the woman who was known to scientists as HeLa through the College’s 2010 Common Reading program.
Marietta Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Rita Smith Kipp, has chosen The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as this year’s Common Reading selection. The book was written by Rebecca Skloot and has received outstanding reviews as well as coverage on television and NPR.
“It was on my list of things to read this summer, and I thought others would probably be reading it as well,” Kipp said. “What is more fun than talking about a book you have enjoyed with others who have also read it? I wanted to make that happen by organizing small discussion groups early in the semester, but I suspect that the talk about this book will spill over into conversations in Gilman and the residence halls as the year goes on, and perhaps into some classes as well.”
Dr. Janet Bland, Associate Professor of English, has already read the selection and is excited to participate in a group discussion this fall.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an excellent choice for a common reading. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman seeking cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins; her cancer cells were the first ‘immortal’ cells that would continue to divide and grow outside the human body. These HeLa cells became the basis of modern medical research—cells that were taken without her permission or knowledge before her death in the early 1950s,” Bland said. “Almost 60 years after her death, her cells are still alive. It’s a remarkable story of science, ethics, health care, family, race, gender, life, death, and loss—the book encompasses so many of the issues we all deal with every day. We think our students will enjoy this thought-provoking book.”
Bland recently met the author, who spent a decade researching and writing the book. “Her passion for this story (and the Lacks family) is evident,” said Bland, who is also an author. “Skloot has dedicated years of her life as she worked to give a voice and a face to a woman whose cells are famous but was herself lost to history.”
Many colleges require a common reading of their first-year students, aiming to unite all members of the new class around a common intellectual conversation. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is being used for this very purpose on many other campuses across the country this fall. “Why not open this up to the entire academic community—all interested students, faculty and staff?” Kipp asked.
Faculty, staff and administration from all areas of the campus have volunteered to lead group discussions focusing on the common reading at 4 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 29. “Our new students will mix with upper class students as well as faculty and staff in these discussions at the end of the first week of classes,” Kipp said.
Marietta President, Dr. Jean Scott, has also read the book. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raises questions about medical ethics and about race and class in America. I believe that it will be thought provoking for our students, faculty, and staff. I know it was for me, as I confronted questions about the society in which I grew up. I highly recommend this book to all.”