Cambridge Festival book club is giving away free books

Henrietta Lacks book club - credit Helene Doerflinger

Discover the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cells enabled a scientific revolution and contributed to numerous incredible developments and life-saving treatments over the past 70 years. 

The Cambridge Festival (26 March-4 April) has dedicated a whole website to a unique online book club centred on the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalised human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalised cell line reproduces indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable resource for scientists up to the present day.

Henrietta changed the world when her cells were taken without her knowledge and scientists found they could be grown indefinitely in the laboratory. Known to scientists as ‘HeLa’, her cells became crucial for understanding viruses, devising cancer treatments and the development of vaccines. She died from cervical cancer in 1951, a 31-year-old mother of five.

As part of The Cambridge Festival 2021, everyone is invited to read (or re-read) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and join the Festival online to reflect on Henrietta’s life and story and to discover the science behind her immortal cells.

Through the website ( people can learn about the science of ‘HeLa’ cells, ask our scientists a question about their work, or ‘borrow a scientist’ to participate in their own virtual book club meeting to discuss the current research that is taking place, thanks to Henrietta’s cells.

Everyone is also welcome to join the Festival’s online book club discussion session, organised in partnership with the Cambridge University Library on 1 April at 6pm (UK time). The session features Professor Andrea Brand (molecular biologist) and Professor Nick Hopwood (science historian) talking about HeLa’s influence on their work with live audience Q&A. (This will be a one-off zoom session and will not be available on-demand after the event).

In addition, through the website people can:

  • Find resources to start their own book club session about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  • Request a scientist attend their own book club session where they can discuss the book and answer questions about current research involving Henrietta’s cells (aka HeLa cells)

  • Learn about the science behind HeLa cells

  • Ask a scientist a question about the science of HeLa cells (through the website, not ‘live’)

  • Write a creative response to Henrietta’s story, share it with the Festival, and it could be posted on the website.

Additionally, the Festival has a small number of copies of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks books to give away to book clubs in the UK for free on a first-come, first-served basis.  Please email for more information.

For further information about Henrietta Lacks:

In a related event, Cambridge Science Festival favourite, renowned for his explosive demos, Dr Peter Wothers discusses his book Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter's Wolf: How the Elements Were Named, a fascinating and often surprising exploration of the stories behind how the chemical elements received their names, during Bookclub with Dr Wothers (29 March, 6pm-7pm).  Delving back in time to explore the history and gradual development of chemistry, the book sifts through medieval manuscripts for clues to the stories surrounding the discovery of the elements, showing how they were first encountered or created. Dr Wothers discusses his personal favourites and looks forward to engaging in discussions on yours during this live event.

The Cambridge Festival launches on 26th March and runs until 4th April. It is set to host an extensive programme of over 350 free, online events that tackle many of the critical global challenges affecting us all. Coordinated by the University of Cambridge public engagement team, the Festival features hundreds of prominent figures and experts in the world of science, current affairs and the arts, and focusses on four key themes: health, society, environment, and explore.

To view the full programme please visit: Many events require pre-booking, please check the events listings on the Festival website. 

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media:

Instagram @Camunifestivals | Facebook: @CambridgeFestival | Twitter: @Cambridge_Fest

The Festival sponsors and partners are AstraZeneca and RAND Europe. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.

Image: Henrietta Lacks book club - credit Helene Doerflinger


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (