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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction selection)

A Conspiracy Of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy And The Medical Scandal It Caused
by Michael Gold (nonfiction selection)



Discussion Questions

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General Discussion Questions

1. Which book(s) did you read, and did you like or dislike them?

Discussion Questions for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Nonfiction selection)

1. Due to her patience with the Lacks family, Skloot was able to write this book. What do you think about her ability to persist in this project?

2. When Mary Kubicek, Dr. Gey's assistant, was at Henrietta's autopsy, she noticed Henrietta's painted toes and was reminded that the cells she'd been working with actually came from a live person. Do most people working in labs have this disconnect between their human samples and their origins?

3. When HeLa cells started to be sold, do you think that Dr. Gey should have stepped in to assure that Henrietta Lacks' family was compensated in some way? Do you think they should be compensated at all?

4. Why do you think the people injected during Dr. Chester Southam's experiments or their family members did not question what they were being injected with or why they developed cancer? Would the same be true today?

5. Do you think the doctors who allowed patients to be involved in potentially harmful experiments without their knowledge were complying with their Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm"?

6. John Moore said "It was very dehumanizing to be thought of as Mo, to be referred to as Mo in the medical records…" (p.201). Why didn't the scientists consider this when creating their cell lines?

7. Compared with the Golde/Moore case, was what Dr. Gey did with Henrietta Lacks' cells different because he made no money from their use?

8. Michael Gold told Rebecca Skloot: "The family wasn't really my focus…I just thought they might make some interesting color for the scientific story" (p.211). Your thoughts?

Discussion Questions for A Conspiracy Of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy And The Medical Scandal It Caused (Nonfiction selection)

1. The book starts with a quote from Francis Bacon: "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; But if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." Comments?

2. When Dr. Nelson-Rees was given the Soviet cells, he was instructed not to do anything with them. Why do you think he sent them to Detroit anyway? Was he wrong to do so?

3. Why was it so difficult for Dr. Nelson-Rees to publish his findings about the Russian cells, in addition to his initial rejection from Science about the HeLa contamination? Does his experience raise concerns for you about the scientific publication process?

4. Do you think that Dr. Nelson-Rees was unscientific or unethical in his efforts to point out cell contamination in specific labs? Was it wrong for him to do that publicly?

5. Do you think that tissue culturists would have taken Dr. Gartler's news about cell contamination differently if he were a tissue culturist also, rather than a geneticist?

6. How did you feel when you learned that many cell lines were likely contaminated with HeLa cells, making years of research and money a waste? Do you consider that research a waste?

7. According to the author, Jim Duff once said, "You know, they don't award Nobel Prizes for finding out that things are wrong" (p. 143). Should finding out that things are wrong be valued just as much as making new discoveries?

8. This book was published in 1986. Has the attitude of scientists today changed toward cell line contamination compared with those discussed in the book?

Created July 2010

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