HeLa Reading Log Teacher Sheet

HeLa Reading Log Teacher Sheet


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is divided into three parts: Life, Death, and Immortality. As students read the book, they should use the questions on the reading log to guide their thoughts and ideas and note any dates or events they feel are important to understanding the information in each section.

Part 1: Life
Chapters 1 through 11

Henrietta and her family had a distrust of medical doctors and hospitals. What led them to feel that way?


The doctors and institutions never told the family about Henrietta’s cells and the research that was being done on them.  They also didn’t get permission from the family to use the cells in research.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, had a hard time getting Henrietta’s family, especially her children, to trust her. Why?

Skloot was another white reporter asking a lot of questions, and the family felt betrayed by previous reporters. So they thought Skloot was just another person poking around in their family business.

How do you think the Lacks’ lives might have been different had Henrietta’s doctors asked for and gotten informed consent from her family before gathering her cells for research?

Answers may vary. Students should explain their answers.


Part 2: Death
Chapters 12 through 22

George Gey, the first doctor who grew HeLa cells, wanted to keep Henrietta’s identity private, so he created the pseudonym Helen Lane. Why did he want to protect her identity?

Researchers worked with a lot of tissue cells from patients who remained anonymous, but curiosity about HeLa cells created a stir and people wanted to know who they came from. Keeping patient information confidential wasn’t law yet, but patient privacy was a growing practice. Also, Johns Hopkins was worried that disclosing her name would get the hospital in trouble.

In chapter 17, a virologist, Chester Southam, wondered if scientists working with Henrietta’s cells could get cancer from handling the cells. What did he do to test the theory that cancer was caused by a virus or immune system deficiency?

He injected patients, prisoners, and other people with Henrietta’s cells to see if they would get cancer. He told them he was testing their immune systems and didn’t reveal he was injecting them with malignant cancer cells.

What is the Nuremberg Code and why was it established?


It’s a 10-point code established as a result of the Nuremberg tribunal in 1947. Seven Nazi doctors were sentenced to death for conducting gruesome medical experiments on Jews without their consent.


Part 3: Immortality
Chapters 23 through 38

The Lacks had no idea that their mother’s cells had been harvested and used in research until 25 years or so after her death. The family was devastated to learn this and had no understanding of what happened or why. How do you think this could have been avoided? What responsibilities did the medical researchers, Johns Hopkins, and other institutions have toward the family?

When Henrietta was alive, doctors should have asked for her permission to take some of her cells for research purposes and gotten her permission in writing. But they also should have explained to her and her husband in as simple language as possible exactly what and why they wanted to use the cells. And they should have made sure that the Lacks understood what they were agreeing to.

Through research using HeLa cells, scientists discovered what made these cells immortal. What did they discover?



At the end of each chromosome is a string of DNA called a telomere. The telomere shortens a small amount each time the cell divides until eventually the cell dies. Cells divide a specific number of times. That number is called the Hayflick Limit. Human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase, which rebuilds the cell’s telomeres so that they keep on dividing instead of shortening. This is why cancer cells keep on dividing indefinitely.

In the Afterward, Skloot discusses the ongoing debates among medical scientists, lawyers, ethicists, and others. Some feel it is the right of every person to have a say-so in how their cells are used or not used for research. Others believe it is everyone’s obligation as members of society to donate (without compensation) their tissues for the good of society because that is how new drugs and treatments are discovered. What do you think?

Answers may vary. Students should explain their answers.


This teacher sheet is a part of the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks lesson.

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