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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book coverThe 2011-2012 year is going to be an exciting one for the Life of the Mind (LOM) program, the common reading experience that gives first-year students their initial taste of academic life at UT Knoxville. This year’s book for the fall 2011 freshman class is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Published just last year, Immortal Life is the first book written by Rebecca Skloot, an award-winning science writer. It has received wide acclaim, including selection as a New York Times Notable Book and the editors’ choice for the Best Book of 2010. The book is also being made into a movie, produced in part by Oprah Winfrey.

The book tells of the African American woman whose cervical cancer cells, taken during a biopsy and cultured without her knowledge or permission in the 1950s, have been integral in developing the polio vaccine, unlocking secrets of cancer and viruses, helping understand the effects of the atomic bomb, and contributing to the development of in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. The cells are known as HeLa cells, a name derived from the initial letters of Lacks’ first and last names.

Skloot’s book weaves together many important themes, including African American history, research, and medical ethics. She explains the science of HeLa cells but also introduces readers to the Lacks family and their journey in understanding what happened to Henrietta.

“Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than 20 years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent,” Skloot’s website says. “And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. … The story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African-Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.”

Selection of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wraps up a three-month process in which the LOM committee reviewed more than 100 nominations from the campus community. Members cited the book’s broad, cross-disciplinary nature and relevance to the campus’s celebration of 50 years of African American achievement as reasons for its selection. The University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State University also have used the book for similar programs. For more about the book and the author, visit the author’s website.

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