ECU has selected the story of Henrietta Lacks for the 2012 Pirate Read. (Photos courtesy of Rebecca Skloot's web site)

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' selected for 2012

Feb. 6, 2012

By Jeannine Manning Hutson
ECU News Services

East Carolina University has picked the highly acclaimed “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot as its Pirate Summer Read for 2012.

The work tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, the forgotten woman behind one of the most important tools in modern medicine, and of her descendants, many of whom feel betrayed by the scientific establishment.
Author Rebecca Skloot

Born in Clover, Va., Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer working the same land as her slave ancestors. In 1951, she developed a strangely aggressive cancer, and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a tissue sample without her knowledge. She died later that year without knowing that her cells were the first to grow in a lab culture and survive indefinitely, making them “immortal.”

HeLa cells, as they are called, were essential in developing the polio vaccine. The cells have also aided in the development of in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping and are used to better understand cancer and innumerable viruses. Today, HeLa is the most widely used cell line in labs worldwide, bought and sold by the billions.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which took more than a decade for Skloot to research and write, spent more than a year on The New York Times bestseller list. Oprah Winfrey and director Alan Ball are working to bring the story to life in an HBO movie.

Four other works were finalists for this year’s selection, but the committee picked “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” because “the book had some really valuable social issues,” said MaryBeth Corbin, who co-chaired the ECU Pirate Read committee. “And they felt students could relate to this book more than some of the others.”

The committee asked faculty and staff for their input as well, Corbin said. “We received the most positive feedback for that book. We felt the issues were relevant for our area and we could do some interesting curricular activities across campus. It touches every discipline across campus.”

Corbin said the committee is now working to bring Skloot to campus in the fall for activities with students, faculty and, possibly, the community. First-year students are asked to complete the Pirate Read before arriving on campus in August.

ECU began the Pirate Summer Read program in 2008. Previously selected works are as follows:
  • “My Freshman Year – What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student” by Rebekah Nathan.
  • “Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009,” edited by Dave Eggers.
  • “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
  • “Picking Cotton” by Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton.

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