Magical moment in classroom leads to a blockbuster project

November 9th, 2010

Chicago Tribune

by Elizabeth Taylor

7:47 p.m. CDT, November 5, 2010

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Growing up in Portland, Ore., Rebecca Skloot found the repetition and confinement of public school boring. She never showed up and flunked out but eventually found herself in a community college biology class. In a lecture on mitosis, the process of cell division, the teacher mentioned the strange case of some cells that would not die — the HeLa cells.

For a disaffected 16-year-old, that story had a magical effect. “I was unengaged,” Skloot recalled, “and for the first time, I was engaged and started going to school.” More than two decades later, her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has been on the best-seller list for months, and she has a movie deal, has garnered lots of critical acclaim and won this year’s nonfiction Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a medical mystery, embedded in the story of a real family and of race relations in America. Lacks, an African-American mother of five, who had been a tobacco farmer, went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, seeking treatment for cervical cancer but died of the disease in 1951. Her cancer cells were harvested, replicated billions of times and were indestructible. They created a multibillion-dollar cell and human tissue industry. Meanwhile, Lacks’ children struggled along, without health insurance or, until this book, knowledge of their mother’s great contribution to science.

Skloot forged a relationship with the Lacks family, and this story seamlessly weaves that into the scientific one, in a compelling way. She worked on the book for more than a decade, through a variety of editors and publishers, but was sustained by faith in her story. Skloot had no intention of taking a piece of the Lacks family for profit, as the science industry had done decades before. Skloot, 38, recently moved to Chicago, and established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which finances the education of five of Lacks’ grandchildren.

When the book was published, Skloot sent a copy to the teacher who had introduced her to Henrietta Lacks, with a note that it was the extra-credit paper she had promised two decades earlier. She says she sees herself in many other students she encounters on speaking tours, and she repeats, “Let your curiosity take you somewhere.”