The Historical Context of Henrietta Lacks

This is a lesson plan to use with UNIV 100 students while teachingThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as part of the 2011-2012 First Year Book program. This lesson was developed by Dr. Lisa Kiely, assistant dean, University of Maryland, College Park.


Ask students to read “A few words about this book,” the Prologue and the section of the FYB website under “Life.” (Read about Henrietta Lacks and read one review of the book).         

Quickwrite (After reading, write for 5 minutes reacting to the reading), then discuss.


Explain the goal/purpose of today’s lesson which is to better understand the historical context of Henrietta Lacks and her story.

Model the “Sum It Up” activity with the warm-up reading. The “Sum It Up” activity is a reading strategy used to improve summarization skills.  Here is a  modified version to use in UNIV courses.

Group Activity:
Say: When you read the story about Henrietta Lacks, keep in mind that what was done was not illegal. Many of the laws around informed consent were born out of violations made in the past. But in 1951, what was done to Ms. Lacks was not a crime. Now think about the same thing happening in the context of history. 

Ask the students to work in groups using the ‘Sum it Up’ strategy and report back to the class on the following issues (

Have groups share out their findings as students take notes.

Group Discussion:
After listening to the history with which the Lacks family carries (as did many African American families) from medicine and science, history and their daily lives, have them discuss the following questions as a group:

  • Why is this story important?
  • What images would come up for the family when they found out about the cells?
  • If you were in their place, how do you think you would react?
  • Can you think of other experiences today that are similar?

Quickwrite: Reflect on today’s lesson. What did you learn? Have any of your opinions changed? Why?