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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks chosen as First Engagements text

Rebecca Skloot’s riveting book about cancer, racism, and science ethics, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has been selected as this year’s text for First Engagements: A Community Book Project at Transylvania.

First Engagements is designed to give first-year students an introduction to the liberal arts and the high academic standards at Transylvania through small-group discussion and analysis of a text. Many upper-class students, faculty, and staff also read the book and join the discussions that take place during the first week of classes in September.

Immortal life of henrietta lacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a New York Times bestseller, tells the story of a poor African American woman who died from cervical cancer at age 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, spawned the first viable human cell line, known as HeLa, that could grow and survive indefinitely in a laboratory.

HeLa gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the polio vaccine and leading to gene mapping and cloning. Her cells eventually lived on in thousands of labs and in giant factories churning out polio vaccines and have become essential to modern medicine.

Skloot, a science journalist, creates a moving work of nonfiction narrative that looks at the story from various perspectives, including the fundamental questions of ethics, racism, and intellectual property in the world of scientific research. She also writes of the effects on Lacks’s family, especially her daughter, Deborah.

Alumni, parents, and friends are encouraged to read the book and watch Transylvania’s Facebook page for discussion.

In a related event, Harriet A. Washington, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, was chosen as this year’s speaker for convocation, set for Sunday, September 11, at 5 p.m. in Haggin Auditorium. She is a journalist and bioethicist who has worked at Harvard Medical School and Tuskegee University.

Washington’s groundbreaking study shows that the infamous Tuskegee experiment of the 1930s, in which black syphilitic men were studied but not treated, was only the most publicized in a long and continuing history of the American medical community using African Americans as human guinea pigs.

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