Author speaks to freshmen about chronicling Henrietta Lacks story
Published: Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 04:10
Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 at age 31 after a battle with cervical cancer, continues to have her story told today.
HeLa cells, named by abbreviating Lacks' first and last name, were taken from her in 1951 during a cervical cancer biopsy while she was under care at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Cells from her tumor were kept alive and grown, a medical first at the time. They were discovered to be an immortal cell line, meaning they grew indefinitely.
In time, the HeLa cell line became an essential factor of many medical advancements, such as the polio vaccine, cloning and in vitro fertilization. The Lacks family was unaware of the HeLa cells or their usage until nearly 20 years after her death.
Rebecca Skloot chronicled this story in this year's suggested reading to incoming freshmen, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Students are encouraged by the university to read the book, in hopes that common reading will help freshmen better transition to college.
Skloot shared her story with university students Thursday, describing its applicability to beginning college life.
"It wasn't a book about a woman whose cells were taken and used in science," Skloot said. "The story is about the repercussions of that, what happened to her family as a result and also the amazing science from that."
Skloot connected her path of writing to that of a freshman adapting to college. She believes the best way to approach college is without defined plans.
"The most successful people in the world take rough and imperfect paths to reach that success," Skloot said.
She said she was inspired to write at 16 during a basic biology class at community college, when her fascination with Lacks began. Years later, Skloot chose to write her first University of
Pittsburgh graduate school assignment on Lacks, which began her 10-year journey learning about the Lacks family.
The Baltimore family struggled financially and didn't have health insurance, while at the same time Lacks' cells were a major factor in multiple healthcare advances, Skloot said. She said that Lacks' daughter, Deborah, was a main source of inspiration for the book.
"Her belief in the importance of education and getting her mother's story out to the public and sharing her mother's contribution to science is something she felt was withheld from her family for so long," Skloot said.
Skloot founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation after completing her book, which helps Lacks' descendents receive educational and monetary aid. The foundation has awarded 22 grants as of August 2011.
Meghan Biery, first-year seminar program coordinator, said Skloot's book was chosen as the common reader because it focuses on various controversial issues.
"The committee believes the book provides a unique opportunity for students to begin to address and discuss important questions related to ethics, science and diversity," Biery said.
Freshman Akilah Alleyne said the book had a pertinent message to new students.
"The book generally talks about biology, but the message she brought in the book was overall just becoming a better person," Alleyne said. "I think starting as a freshman reading this book will help you."
Freshman Sarah Natkins said she would recommend the book to others.
"I think I gained insight into what's going on scientifically," Natkins said. "It's amazing to find out that so much science came from one woman and nobody expected that. I think the advances made with the cells are incredible."