Medical wonder

Author gives voice to a forgotten pioneer of science

Rebecca Skloot visited Chico last week to discuss her New York Times best-seller about Henrietta Lacks.

Rebecca Skloot visited Chico last week to discuss her New York Times best-seller about Henrietta Lacks.

Photo By kyle Delmar

Between the late-January kick-off of science writer Rebecca Skloot’s grassroots-organized book tour and her Chico State appearance last Thursday night (April 22), something extraordinary happened: She became famous.

Hence the last-minute change-of-venue for her talk from Ayres 120 to the considerably larger Harlen Adams Theatre.

Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, entered the New York Times Bestseller List at No. 5 in mid-February, less than one week after it was published. In her book, Skloot tells the remarkable story of the life and death and subsequent resurrection-of-sorts of a poor Southern black woman named Henrietta Lacks, whose unusually tenacious cells—later named “HeLa cells” by scientists—were taken from her (without her or her family’s knowledge) as she was dying of cervical cancer and made “immortal” by being grown in a laboratory.

The unique cells are to this day key to scientific research of all sorts, and are responsible for countless scientific advances, including the development of the polio vaccine and in-vitro fertilization, gene mapping and cell cloning.

The past two months have been a seeming whirlwind of book-tour stops, media interviews and glowing reviews for Skloot. Chico State philosophy professor Troy Jollimore had no way of knowing quite what he was dealing with when he invited her—pre-fame—to speak as a guest of Chico State’s Humanities Center and the Department of Philosophy.

Before a well-filled room, Skloot began by reading some excerpts. She explained how, in 1951, Lacks—a 30-year-old mother of five—had been taken by her husband from their home in Clover, Va., to the “colored” section of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to have “a knot on [her] womb” checked. The nickel-sized lump turned out to be a cancerous tumor, which had appeared and grown at an alarming rate.

After an unsuccessful round of treatment in which tubes of radium were sewn to the entrance to her cervix, Lacks died a painful death six months after her diagnosis. But not before a sample of her fast-growing cells was given to pioneering researcher Dr. George Gey, now deceased, who propagated them as the HeLa line of immortal human cells—which doubles every 24 hours and amounts to 50 million metric tons of cells to date. Vials of factory-produced HeLa cells are sold for research purposes to labs worldwide and fetch as much as $10,000 per vial, said Skloot.

Neither Lacks—whose grinding poverty forced her to be buried in a unmarked grave—nor any of her surviving family members ever received any money for the scientific community’s use of her cells. In fact, the first her family knew of the HeLa cells, said Skloot, was in the late-1960s when scientists contacted the family for DNA samples to aid them in determining whether the vigorous cells were contaminating other nearby, in-lab cell cultures.

Her widowed husband “didn’t know what a cell was—he thought they told him she was in a prison cell, alive,” offered Skloot. Lacks’ children were initially no less confused about the news that somehow their mother was still “alive.” Questions from daughter Deborah—a devoutly religious woman who believed that her mother’s soul “was in those cells” and who ended up aiding Skloot significantly in the research for her book—ranged from, “Does my mother have polio in the afterlife?” to “Can scientists tell me what her favorite color was or if she liked to dance?” Deborah was 2 when her mother died.

Skloot’s poignant presentation and lively Q-and-A period were filled with one gob-smacking revelation after another, including the fact that Henrietta’s son, whose doctor openly fawned over his mother’s contribution to medical science just before performing his recent septuple-bypass heart surgery, cannot afford health insurance.

“He woke up [after surgery] $175,000 in debt,” Skloot said, “and [he’s] still paying it off.”

More disturbing was her discussion, prompted by a question from a woman in the audience, of a “side story” in the book—Skloot’s discovery that Deborah’s deaf, epileptic, older sister Elsie, who was institutionalized when her mother became too sick to care for her, had died at age 15 “at the Home for Crazy Negroes” in Crownsville, Md., after “being used in brutal research.”

Skloot insisted toward the end of the evening, however, that “there isn’t any bad guy in this story … no ill intentions on scientists’ part.

“Science was sort of moving faster than the ethical framework around them” at the time, she said.

One of the scientists Skloot interviewed for her book donated a tombstone for Henrietta Lacks’ grave. It is currently in the process of having the finishing touches put on it, she said. And Skloot has set up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation ( where money can be donated to help fund education and health care for Lacks’ descendants. Part of the proceeds from Skloot’s book go to the foundation as well.

The story of Henrietta Lacks has all the spell-binding twists and turns, and meaty subject matter, of a first-rate film, which prompted the obvious question.

“Will it be made into a movie?”

“Yes, there’s definitely talk of a movie,” said Skloot, who hesitated to say more.