Health & Medicine

Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (cover)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Book choice for second Go Big Read offers plenty to ponder and discuss.

Seven thousand people flocked to the Kohl Center for the main event, but it wasn’t a basketball game or a concert.

The crowd gathered last fall to hear a lecture by Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, a book selected for the university’s first common-reading program, organized by UW-Madison Libraries. In its first year, the program, named Go Big Read, got people to do more than read — it got people to talk. Pollan and his book drew critics, including farmers and food scientists, who disputed his claims in public forums and local media.

For its second year, Go Big Read isn’t shying away from controversy.

Chancellor Biddy Martin PhD’85 has selected The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, who is scheduled to speak on campus on October 25. Her book tells the story of Lacks, a poor black woman in Baltimore who died from cervical cancer in 1951 at age thirty. Scientists know her simply as HeLa, the name given to cancerous cells taken without her knowledge that had the ability to reproduce indefinitely without disintegration.

Researchers used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine, and the cells also contributed to advances in chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. Yet Lacks’s contribution was not acknowledged for years. Her family lived in poverty, and Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave while others profited from her cells.

Martin says that Go Big Read’s first year was “everything I hoped it would be,” and that this year’s choice holds the same potential to interest people across the campus community. Skloot’s book raises issues of medical ethics, poverty, racism, ownership rights, and the law.

“In addition to being a great read, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is cross-disciplinary and relevant, and will engage students and readers on a number of intellectual and personal levels,” she says.

First-year students attending the Chancellor’s Convocation and students taking courses using the book will receive copies. The book is being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey.

Published in the Fall 2010 issue


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