The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


  • Students will discuss the concept of “health” from a variety of theoretical perspectives including biomedicine, critical medical anthropology (CMA), and lay/popular beliefs about health.
  • Students will conduct an analysis of a current health issue using CMA
  • Students will consult primary sources, critically assess findings and compare results.
  • Students will develop competence in scholarly writing including the following: development of a well-structured argumentative paper that contains a thesis statement; use of introductory and concluding paragraphs; use of appropriate grammar; constructing well-structured sentences and paragraphs; and citation and references for primary source material.


In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, journalist Rebecca Skloot (2011) tells the story of how the descendants of Henrietta Lacks come to terms with the story of her death from cancer and the use of her cells for biomedical research. Essential to that story is the conflict between the powerful biomedical system and the beliefs held by Henrietta’s family about cancer and the body. Critical Medical Anthropology (CMA) uses a theoretical framework that is expressly political to analyze conflicts between biomedical practitioners and others (Baer et al., 2003).


1). Locate three examples from the book where the beliefs of a family member come into conflict with those of a biomedical practitioner (doctor, nurse, researcher or other). For each example:

  • Describe the belief system of the family member and speculate on how this belief system may have been formed
  • Describe the belief system of the biomedical practitioner and speculate on how this belief system may have been formed
  • Describe how these belief systems come into conflict
  • Describe the outcome of that conflict for both individuals

2). Use a Critical Medical Anthropology (CMA) approach (such as that proposed by Baer et al., 2003) to analyze the social relations described in the book. Consult CMA theorists and researchers to support your arguments and use examples from Skloot (2011) to illustrate your responses to the following questions:

  • Who has power over the agencies of biomedicine?
  • How and in what form is this power expressed?
  • How is power evident in the social relations described in the book?
  • What are the consequences for Henrietta’s family of the power relations that characterize biomedicine?

3). Describe an incident in the book where a biomedical practitioner acts differently, overcoming the power relations typical of biomedicine in an effort to meet the family’s needs.

  • Describe the incident
  • In your opinion, does this action make any difference for the family?
  • Why or why not?

4). Provide a point-form outline indicating the responses and examples you will use to answer questions 1 and 2 above. Provide 3 preliminary references from CMA theorists or researchers that will support your arguments. The format for the outline is 1-2 pages including references.

5). The format for the Term Paper is 8-10 pages (including title page and references) double-spaced, 12-pt font with minimum 2 cm margins. Provide a title page listing the name of the assignment, your name, your student number, the course number, the instructor’s name and the date. Use page numbers. In the body of the paper, use as many paragraphs as necessary, but be sure to include introductory and concluding paragraphs. You may write in the first person voice. You are required to consult a minimum of three (3) published primary sources for your interpretations. Provide citations in text for these sources. Provide a reference list. A Citation and Referencing Style Guide is provided on the next page.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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