A true story of immortal life

Posted on November 03, 2010 by Staff Writer

Sweet Briar College will host a lecture and book signing by Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-selling “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8 in Murchison Lane Auditorium. Admission is free.

Skloot will talk about the story of Henrietta Lacks, who at age 31 left behind a husband and five children when she died of an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. Lacks grew up impoverished on a tobacco farm in Southside Virginia before moving to Baltimore.

Rebecca Skloot
She died without knowing that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital had taken tissue samples from her tumor that would lead to huge advances in modern medicine, including development of the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization and gene mapping.

The cells they took were the first to grow and survive indefinitely in culture. Scientists called them HeLa cells — and they are still living today, bought and sold by the billions for research. Skloot reveals in the book that while the cell line made millions of dollars in profits for biotechnology companies, Lacks’ husband and children didn’t learn of the cells’ “immortality” for more than 20 years.

Skloot is a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Discover and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing. She also is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, and has worked as a correspondent for public broadcasting’s “Radiolab” and “NOVA ScienceNOW.”

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has been widely acclaimed for its exploration of race, culture, science, bioethics and the telling of one family’s story.

“Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace,” Lisa Margonelli, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote in a New York Times review.

“She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.”

For more information, contact John Gregory Brown at brown@sbc.edu or (434) 381-6434.