Bestselling Author Rebecca Skloot Comes to Smith
Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 20:04
Rebecca Skloot, author of the 2011 first-year summer reading book and New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, spoke at Smith last Tuesday. Skloot read excerpts from The Immortal Life and answered questions about her writing process and the issues of race, gender and bioethics that she addresses in her book.
Skloot began with the true story of Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer living in Maryland in 1951. Lacks sought medical help for a tumor that developed, which lead her doctor to discover that the cancerous cells were multiplying at a rapid pace never seen before. Lacks died in just a few weeks. Before she died, her doctor took a sample of the first small tumor without Lacks’ permission or knowledge.
The limited knowledge about Lacks inspired Skloot, who was a graduate student at the time, to tell Lacks’ story. HeLa cells – as the cells discovered in the tumor are called – became “the first immortal human cell line,” and have since been used by scientists to develop the polio vaccine and important cancer medicines. They were also the first cells used in gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more. However, Lacks and her family, who continued to live in poverty, received neither acknowledgment for nor benefits from the huge amounts of money reaped from these cells.
Skloot spoke to the Smith audience about how she had struggled in school as a child and failed many classes in high school, but eventually became passionate about science and realized she wanted to become a veterinarian. Despite heavily focusing on her pre-veterinarian courses in the beginning, she discovered a love of creative writing, and decided to pursue a graduate degree in creative non-fiction science writing.
“You can imagine my parents’ reaction when I told them I had decided to be a writer instead of a doctor,” Skloot joked. Ten years of research later, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks became her graduate school thesis and a New York Times bestseller.
Students and other audience members asked how people at Hopkins Hospital, the Lacks family and black audiences have responded to the book. Skloot said that the staff at Hopkins was spurred by the book to develop a health team whose job was to reach out to impoverished people in surrounding communities without health care. Black audiences, Skloot said, were typically less shocked by the racism and mistreatment of the Lacks family depicted in the book.
She described the family’s response as a telephone conference call of squealing and declarations that “Henrietta was a rock star.”
“It was a joy to hear how the younger members of the family – her grandchildren who were in their 30s and 40s – read the book aloud to older members of the family, and helped their parents and grandparents come to terms with the possibility of being both proud of the cells, but also wishing that the cells hadn’t been taken without Henrietta’s permission or sold for such an extreme profit while her family lived in poverty,” Skloot said.
When asked whether she had any personal reasons for writing this story, she told the audience about her father, who became very sick when she was in high school.
“I spent my junior year of high school driving him back and forth to the hospital for treatments and because he had volunteered to be a part of their research,” said Skloot. “Since then, I’ve been deeply interested in medical ethics and how research patients are treated.”
“I don’t want to try to explain the next book I’m working on, because it’s at the stage where it is very personal and very half-formed. I will tell you, though, that it will be very different from Henrietta. I’ve said everything I can in that story, even though there’s plenty left to be addressed about medical ethics and race, gender, and class; past and present.”