The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (Crown), a true story that reads like science fiction, goes on sale tomorrow. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman from Baltimore County who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. According to protocol, cells from both her aggressive tumor and her healthy tissue were harvested by Johns Hopkins Hospital. What no one could have expected is that her cells – or their descendants – are now the most famous and long-lived in the world.
Seeing that her cells thrived in the laboratory, researchers shared them with colleagues who needed human cells to test treatments for polio, herpes, leukemia, influenza, and Parkinson's disease, among many others; they were essential to the development of the Salk polio vaccine Henrietta Lacks' cells, called HeLa cells for short, formed the first immortal human cell line. They're bought and sold by labs around the world, but Henrietta Lacks' five children and numerous grandchildren, who didn't find out about the cells until 25 years later, have never seen a cent from their mother's unwitting gift. Most grew up in poverty. When a researcher at Hopkins suggests they should receive compensation, they say they'd like health insurance.
This is Rebecca Skloot's first book. She's an award-winning science writer who has written about such topics as goldfish surgery and attack pets for The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Glamour and many others and reported on stories for programs on PBS and NPR. She now runs the blog Culture Dish, hosted by Seed Magazine. She spent a decade and amassed huge credit card debt researching her subject.
Now she's been on ABC and NBC promoting The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it's a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for spring 2010, and advance reviews are glowing. A day before publication, her debut book is at #119 in Amazon rankings and #456 at Barnes and Noble.com. With all that, she's still organizing and financing her own book tour. She'll be reading at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, Gilman Hall, Friday, February 19, at 7pm.
It's a sad story of a Baltimore family and a triumph for the author -- for bringing to light their mother's story and their plight, and for publishing her first book. Maybe it will turn into a happier story for the family, too.
Excerpt from O: The Oprah Magazine
Boston Globe review, 1/31/10
The Washington Post review, 1/31/10
Publishers Weekly story, November 9, 2009
City Paper story, April 2002