Race and Science: Teaching The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

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Race and Science: Teaching The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman, died of cervical cancer in a public, segregated Baltimore hospital. Before her death, doctors removed some of her tumor cells, which they soon discovered could thrive in a lab—something no human cells had done previously. These “HeLa” cells have been the foundation of several medical advances, including treatments for polio, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease, as well in vitro fertilization and numerous vaccines. Yet, Henrietta Lacks had never consented to her cells being studied.


This case has raised many questions since the 1950s, including those we will explore in this after school workshop:

  • How did  the “science” of eugenics shape beliefs about race and class?
  • How did the beliefs about race and class impact the decision to take and use Henrietta’s cells?
  • How do we recognize and repair past injustices?

Drawing on Facing History’s resource Race and Membership to guide the conversation, we’ll introduce you to strategies and resources to set the historical context for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and for facilitating discussions about the complicated ethical contradictions of this story.


In this workshop, you will:

  • Engage with interdisciplinary teaching strategies that reinforce historical thinking and literacy skills and support the discussion of current and controversial issues in the classroom
  • Explore the themes of identity , membership, and race in American history
  • Examine primary sources that build understanding of the historical context and legacies of Henrietta Lacks’ story.

This workshop is intended for past participants of Facing History’s Race and Membership seminar, as well as upper middle and high school teachers who want to incorporate The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks into lessons on race, history, and ethics.


Dinner will be served, and teachers will receive 2.5 clock hours for full participation. Participants are encouraged to read the book prior to attending the workshop.


Open Books
651 W Lake St
Chicago, IL 60661
4:30 pm - 7:00 pm

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