The scene of Henrietta's death "was one of the most traumatic things I've ever written," Rebecca Skloot says. "I wrote it in one sitting," sunup to sundown, then spent the next couple days in bed. "I was devastated."
The science writer spent more than 10 difficult years researching and writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a nonfiction narrative about the titular African American tobacco farmer and cervical-cancer patient. Her 1951 death left the legacy of a surviving cell line (christened HeLa) that has been instrumental to development of the polio vaccine, gene mapping and thousands of other research initiatives. Lacks also left a family that has seen none of the revenue generated by her cells.
Spanning medical ethics and history, class and race dynamics, Skloot's first book has met with lavish acclaim. Oprah Winfrey is co-producing a movie adaptation for HBO. And UW-Madison has selected The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for this year's Go Big Read common-reading program. Skloot appears at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25, at the Kohl Center.
She first learned of Henrietta Lacks and her surviving cells from an offhanded comment by her high school biology teacher. The story would not let go. "If you're curious about something and you think you need to do something," Skloot's family taught her, "you should figure out a way to do it."
She had to reckon how to win the trust of the Lacks family, which had seen their trust betrayed too many times to offer it yet again without suspicion. Even when she did enjoy their confidence, it was sometimes fragile.
Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, may have been the most volatile source in this regard. "But I've never met anyone who wanted to learn more than she did," Skloot marvels. "She was so desperate to learn about her mother and these cells, and she was so resilient."
Henrietta's cells were taken without her consent in the 1950s, long before contemporary standards of informed consent. In January, Skloot established a foundation to direct a portion of the book's proceeds toward scholarships for Henrietta's descendants.
Says Skloot, "So much of what's going to happen for everyone in coming years and decades hinges on scientists being able to do research on these tissues."