The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot book cover

ABERDEEN, S.D. – Two of Henrietta Lacks’ surviving family members will be at Northern State University’s 2023 Larry and Julie Poeppel Family Common Read Lecture on Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. The event will be held at the Johnson Fine Arts Center’s Harvey and Cynthia Jewett Theater. It is a free event and open to the public.

The speakers are Jeri Lacks Whye, Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughter, and Shirley Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ daughter-in-law. They have traveled around the country sharing their perspectives on the legacy of Henrietta Lacks and her “immortal” cells, named HeLa cells.

“I am excited to welcome Ms. Whye and Ms. Lacks to the NSU and Aberdeen community. Henrietta’s life has impacted so many people and to have a couple of her family members on campus is an honor,” said NSU Honors Program Director Dr. Kristi Bockorny.

Lacks’ stolen cells have been at the heart of many scientific advancements, including the polio vaccine and gene mapping. The cells were sold and used extensively in experiments without any compensation to the Lacks family until 2020. Although the cancerous cells were taken in 1951, before Lacks’ death, the family didn’t become aware of the theft until the 1970s, when scientists asked Lacks’ children for blood samples to further their research.

Now, Whye is on the panel created by the National Institute of Health to oversee HeLa research applications. She uses her speaking opportunities to address national issues, such as health disparities, literacy, and community trust.

Shirley Lacks was childhood best friends with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and later married David Lacks. She has become a voice for patients’ rights and serves as a board member of Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was selected by the NSU Common Read Committee, comprised of students, faculty, staff, and community members for its cross-disciplinary discussion opportunities.

The book has won several awards, including the National Academies Best Book of the Year Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Young Adult Science Book award, and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize. It was also named the best book of the year by more than 60 media outlets.

Copies of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” are available to purchase from the NSU Wolf Shoppe for $12.25 plus tax.

About the NSU Common Read

Now in its 14th year, Northern’s annual Common Read program has grown into the largest academic event on the NSU campus, attracting internationally recognized authors. The event is hosted by the NSU Honors Program and supported through a generous endowment by the Larry and Julie Poeppel family. To learn more, contact Bockorny at