2011 One Read Winner: About Rebecca Skloot and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

About the Author

Rebecca Skloot photo by Manda TownsendWhat do goldfish surgery, helper monkeys, food addictions and human tissue ownership have in common? They are all topics explored in science writer Rebecca Skloot’s work.

While taking a community college biology course at the age of 16, Skloot learned about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells, known as HeLa, cultured by scientists and used in research around the world. Her curiosity about the woman behind this line of cells grew as she gave up her long-held goal of becoming a veterinarian and discovered an aptitude for writing. Skloot has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many other publications, and she is co-editor of “The Best American Science Writing 2011.” “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is her first book.

Skloot has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh and New York University. She currently gives talks on subjects ranging from bioethics to book proposals at conferences and universities nationwide. Skloot lives in Chicago.

Biographical info from rebeccaskloot.com and author profile in Booklist Online.

About the Book

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

In this compelling work of narrative nonfiction, Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

The story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Book synopsis from Random House, Inc.


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