It was in a Portland Community College biology class that Rebecca Skloot, author of the international bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, first learned about the woman who would be at the heart of her book.
"I was one of these kids who was smart and had a lot of energy, but was sort of bored in classes," Skloot told Think Out Loud's Dave Miller. "I didn't do well with the traditional structure of 'do this, read that.' I wanted to read something else."
Skloot briefly attended Lincoln High School in Portland before dropping out after her freshman year. This was a common theme in her young life. "My dad is fond of pointing out that the first school I was ever kicked out of was preschool," recalled Skloot.
She wound up at the Metropolitan Learning Center (MLC), an alternative high school. Hoping to graduate early, she packed her schedule with classes at MLC, Benson and Portland Community College. During a lecture, her PCC biology professor wrote the name "Henrietta Lacks" on the chalkboard. Lacks was responsible for the HeLa cells Skloot's class was studying, and her fascination grew from there.
Skloot learned that Lacks was a poor, black tobacco farmer who developed a tumor in her cervix. "She went to the doctor, and without telling her before treating her cancer, her doctor just took a little piece of her tumor and put it in a dish." From that dish, they were able to do something that scientists all over the world were seeking to do — grow cells outside the body. The cancer cells from Lacks's body were immortal. They would replicate on and on without end, allowing themselves to be used to study cellular diseases. These HeLa cells — named after the woman they came from — have helped deepen our understanding of genetics and genetic diseases such as polio, AIDS and cancer.
However, the cells were taken from Lacks's body without permission. And as her cells went on to help revolutionize treatments for many chronic conditions, her own relatives languished in poverty, without health insurance. Skloot's book covers some of the medical advances Henrietta Lacks made possible as well as the irony of her family's inability to afford health care.
Skloot has founded The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help individuals in need like the Lacks family. A portion of the proceeds from her book sales helps to provide financial assistance to individuals who have contributed to scientific and medical research, or have been used in research, without their knowledge or consent.
You can hear the entire conversation with Rebecca Skloot on Think Out Loud.
This article includes contributions from Think Out Loud's Dave Blanchard.
- Rebecca Skloot Think Out Loud