Life Science Blog

The Immortal Woman Who Science Stole and History Tried to Forget

Rebecca Skloot’s new book reveals untold truths about one of medical science’s most important tools

February 3, 2010

On the evening of February 1 about 100 people gathered in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood at McNally Jackson Books, where the walls are papered with book pages and the café menu features “Literary Experiences” like a cup of tea and a madeleine — a Proustian delight.

But the evening did not belong to fiction. The audience was eager to hear one author relate the true story of a hero you may know nothing about—one to whom medical science owes an enormous debt.

In her new book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, science writer Rebecca Skloot weaves many threads — the medical, the social, the personal — into a cohesive narrative about one of science’s most important tools: immortal cells called HeLa, used extensively in scientific research of all kinds for many decades. HeLa cells have been crucial to AIDS research, cloning, gene mapping and even testing the effects of zero gravity in space.

Researchers cultured HeLa cells after sampling a cancerous tumor in the cervix of a woman named Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer in Virginia who died of her aggressive cancer in 1951 and never knew the fate of her cells. Her family didn’t learn of Henrietta’s contribution until 20 years after her death. It’s a largely unsung and complex story that has gripped readers, scientists and critics alike.

Jad Abumrad of WNYC’s Radiolab introduced Skloot, explaining how they’d been in conversation about the HeLa story for at least five years. “Sometimes,” Abumrad remembered, “I would literally slam my coffee cup down and say, ‘Damn it, Rebecca! We need to go to the studio right now and get this recorded!’”

“I can’t do that,” Skloot would answer him. “I’m working on the book.”

It took Skloot a year and a half to convince the existing members of the Lacks family to actually speak with her. It took her 10 years to research and write the book. From their behavior toward one another, it was clear that over these years the Lackses — some of whom were in attendance at McNally Jackson — had grown quite fond of Skloot, the persistent journalist who became a genuine friend.

“I feel real good about it because it’s helping the medical field,” said Sonny Lacks, Henrietta’s son, when asked how he feels about his mother’s legacy. “I feel warm inside.”

“I am still in awe,” added one of Henrietta’s granddaughters. “We heard stories from our family but they didn’t really know too much. We learned a lot from reading the book. A lot of things are coming clear to us from the research.”

The act of discovery — of learning truths for the first time — is one of the most remarkable aspects of Skloot’s new book, of the HeLa story itself, and of the evening’s gathering. One female scientist in the audience explained how she had worked with HeLa cells in the past and felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to thank the Lackses in person and to thank Skloot for telling their story more fully than anyone before her.

“It seems like this would make a pretty amazing movie,” suggested one man in the audience. According to Skloot, she has been in conversation with several producers already and wants to make sure the HeLa story gets the right kind of artistic direction — more biographical accuracy, less Hollywood makeover. She also hopes to use the possibility of a film as a way to earn the Lackses what many feel is long overdue compensation.

“I’ve talked to a few movie producers who are interested,” Skloot said. “In order to make the movie, they would have to buy the family’s life rights — so I’m holding out for the right opportunity.”

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About the Author

Ferris Jabr has a Bachelors of Science from Tufts University, where he double majored in psychology and English, studied a lot of biology, worked in a social psychology lab and wrote for the daily newspaper. He has interned with Scientific American MIND, Psychology Today, the PBS show NOVA and Environmental Health News. You can visit his personal web site, read his blog The Mind’s Flight and follow him on Twitter.

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