One Book, One Bozeman

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Discovery Changes Everything

Saturday Aug. 1st, 2015

Dictionaries have several listed definitions of the word “immortal,” but one can pretty easily clump those together into three basic categories: not subject to death; remembered or celebrated through all time; and (of a laboratory-cultured cell line) capable of dividing indefinitely. Keep these divergent, but similar, meanings in mind when reading the 2015 One Book – One Bozeman selection, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

For those who have not yet read this powerful book, Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman living in Baltimore when she was diagnosed with cancer in January 1951. In the course of her treatment, her immortal cells were salvaged, cultured, and replicated, all without her knowledge, her consent, or payment. The HeLa cells, as they were to become known, literally revolutionized the medical community and were instrumental in propelling a billion dollar industry that is still benefiting from the discovery today.  

Skloot’s book beautifully and exhaustively researches how this came to happen, how the discovery was made, and what the effects were on the Lacks family – both at the time and 20 years later when it came to light. It was published to great acclaim in 2010 and remained on the New York Times’ bestsellers list for two years.

Skloot is an award-winning science and medical writer, and her book, rife with ethical quandaries and unforeseeable predicaments with lasting implications, was also chosen as the Montana State University Freshmen Read and the text will be incorporated into freshmen seminar classes.

The author and two members of the Lacks family will be in Bozeman on August 26 to speak at the 2015 MSU Convocation and also at the Bozeman Public Library the following day for “A Community Conversation: The Story, Science, and Struggles.”
One Book – One Bozeman encourages the community to read a common book, bringing people together for meaningful discussions and building community relationships. This is the 8th year of the program, hosted by the Bozeman Public Library Foundation in partnership with Montana State University. Various community members and entities such as Bozeman High School and Bozeman Deaconess Hospital will be a part of the discussion.

In addition reading the book and having opportunities to hear and meet the author and family, One Book – One Bozeman will host panel discussions and seminars covering such topics as:

•     The ethics behind, and difficulties of, medical research
•     The legal landscape surrounding testing, reproduction, and profit of cell  
• The naïveté or ignorance about medical practices and expectations
• Historical aspects of the specific time period of Mrs. Lack’s diagnosis and subsequent use of her cells.

Our goal is to think about the how medicine, the legal system, and research all intermingle with human values, morals, and rights – all of which came into play with the untenable situation Henrietta Lacks and her family found themselves in. The discoveries made with the HeLa cells changed the course of medicine as we know it, and most of us don’t even know it.

All activities surrounding One Book – One Bozeman will be listed on For additional information and a great resource about the book, see or

MSU Convocation is free and open to the public on Wednesday, August 26, doors open at 6:30pm and the program begins at 7:30pm, free parking on campus begins at 6:00. Tickets are free, but required and available at all Bobcat ticket outlets. The Bozeman Public Library’s more intimate conversation with the author and family will be August 27, 11:30am in the Large Community Room, free and open to all.    

Paula K. Beswick is the Foundation Director for the Bozeman Public Library Foundation. She can be contacted at or 582-2426.