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Author talks race relations at King Day event

Writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 Doctors, nurses, hospital staff and area residents packed Advocate Christ Medical Center Monday to celebrate the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and one relatively unknown African American woman who was, according to many doctors, vitally important to science.
The event at the hospital, 4440 W. 95th St. in Oak Lawn, featured Rebecca Skloot, the author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Skloot spoke to the crowd about the importance of equality and race relations, and what she learned while researching for her book. Advocate Christ chief operating officer Dominica Tallarico said she hoped the story of Lacks would inspire the audience.
“Martin Luther King Jr., of his own will and volition, set out to change the world,” Tallarico said. “Unknown to her, and without her consent, Henrietta Lacks changed the landscape of medicine today.”
Skloot first heard the story of Lacks in a basic biology class when she was 16. Her teacher told her Lacks’ cells were the first immortal human cells. Scientists had tried to reproduce cells in Petri dishes for years, but the cells always died, Skloot recalled her teacher telling her. Lacks’ cells, however, reproduced every 24 hours, and are still reproducing today, she added.
“In the 1950s in a poor neighborhood in East Baltimore, 30- year-old Henrietta Lacks felt a lump near her cervix, and went to the colored ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital to see her doctor,” Skloot said. “She and her husband drove 20 miles to get there, but it was the only hospital that treated black patients. The doctor found a tumor, and started radiation treatment, but before he did, he cut a sample of her tumor without her consent, and sent it to the lab. Her cells began to grow, and never stopped.”
Lacks’ cells — coined HeLa — eventually took over the lab at Johns Hopkins, Skloot said. Biologist George Guy realized he had the first “immortal” cell line and began to send vials of cells to scientists around the country.
“There was a factory at the Tuskegee Institute that was producing six trillion HeLa cells a week,” Skloot said. “HeLa cells helped create the first polio and HPV vaccine; her cells were the first cells that were cloned; and her cells were the first cells sent into space.”
While the HeLa cells were being tested and used in labs, no one told Lacks’ family about them. A scientist working in 1973 on the Human Genome Project – a project that worked to identify all the genes in human DNA – wanted to track down Lacks’ children to use their cells in the project as well.
“Her husband got a call from a doctor at Hopkins about his wife’s cells,” Skloot explained. “He had a third-grade education, so the way he understood the call was that doctors had kept his wife in the hospital for 25 years and done research on her. He thought a cell was a prison cell.”
Lacks’ husband’s idea made sense, as the 1970s was the time of the infamous Tuskegee studies, where doctors “studied hundreds of black men to see how syphilis killed you,” Skloot said.
“There were a lot of scientists doing research on black people,” she said. “Even today, some people are scared of Johns Hopkins. I heard a story from a teenage girl when I was in Baltimore a few months ago, that when she was growing up, people told her not to be outside after dark, because doctors from Hopkins would snatch you and do research on you. The story of Henrietta was kind of a legend – people thought the doctors at Hopkins gave a healthy woman cancer, and she died. There was a lot of fear there.”
One of the most interesting parts of Skloot’s research was the relationship she developed with Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, she said. Deborah was about to turn 30 years old when Skloot contacted her about writing the book, and she had always lived in fear of her 30th birthday because her mother died at that age, Skloot explained. Deborah thought the same thing would happen to her, she added.
“Deborah really wanted to understand who her mother was,” Skloot said. “She would ask the scientists if they could tell her what her mother’s favorite color was, or if she liked to dance, based off of the cells. I took Deborah and her brother with me on a research trip to see the cells at Hopkins, and just walking into Hopkins voluntarily was a scary experience for them.
“We walked into the lab, and a scientist handed Deborah a vial of HeLa cells. I saw her whisper to the cells – ‘You’re famous! Just, nobody knows it.”
Skloot learned a lot about race relations in the United States while writing the book, she told the audience.
“People gave Deborah a hard time about talking to me, telling her not to talk to a white woman,” Skloot said. “Deborah would always tell me she didn’t think a black writer could have written the book, and we would always argue about it. What Deborah meant was that a black writer would not have had the access that I had. A lot of these scientists grew up during the era of segregation. I never knew what white privilege was, or thought the word privilege applied to me, but I learned what it was while writing this book. People would talk to me different versus [Deborah].”
Another issue was that Lacks’ descendants were living in poverty in Baltimore.
“Here was this woman who had contributed so much to science, and yet her family could not afford health insurance,” Skloot said. “One of her relatives said to me, ‘If she’s so important to medicine, why can’t we go to the doctor?’ They didn’t understand if her cells were being bought and sold by scientists, why they were not receiving any of the money?”
With the proceeds from her book, Skloot has set up The HeLa Foundation, which provides assistance to people and the families of people who have made important contributions to science. The foundation has given 27 grants to Lacks’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go to school and pay for textbooks, Skloot said.
“There has also been an uprising at Hopkins,” she added. “The Lacks’ are eligible for a lot of free medical care, and there is a group at Hopkins that has dedicated themselves to the Lacks’. They will take them to the doctor, make their medical appointments, and cover their care. The HeLa Foundation also helps cover their medical costs.”

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