Since the 1950s, a line of cancer cells, dubbed "HeLa," has continued to multiply in cell cultures around the world. Normal cells die after a certain number of divisions, but HeLa cells are immortal; literally tons of them have been grown for research. They've been bombarded with radiation, shot into space, subjected to various drugs. They aided in a cure for polio. Millions of lives have been saved thanks to HeLa research.
But where did the cells come from, and what makes them unique? Science writer Rebecca Skloot determined to find the answers. She pieced together the story over the course of a decade and discovered an extraordinary tale of race, poverty, questionable medical ethics, and heartbreaking family tragedy. Her book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" ($26 in hardcover from Crown) is the deeply personal legacy of a poor black Baltimore woman, mother of five, who died of cervical cancer in 1951.
Skloot (RebeccaSkloot.com) will be speaking tonight at 7:30 p.m. in PAC 144 (Harlen Adams Theatre) on the Chico State University campus. Sponsored in part by the Humanities Center, the presentation is free and open to the public. A reception will follow at the Humanities Center Gallery, Trinity 100.
Before Lacks died, Skloot was told, "a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish." Henrietta's cells "were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped."
Henrietta's daughter Deborah, suspicious of reporters, eventually befriended Skloot, who writes that "Deborah was the soul of this book."
An entry from Deborah's diary imagines her mother's pain before she died: "Her in that cold looking ward at John Hopkin Hospital, the side for Black’s only, oh yes, I know. When that day came, and my mother died, she was Robbed of her cells and John Hopkins Hospital learned of those cells and kept it to themselfs, and gave them to who they wanted and even changed the name to HeLa cell and kept it from us for 20+ years. They say Donated. No No No Robbed Self."
Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave, and yet she lives. Skloot's book is a mesmerizing account that restores the "self" that might have slipped away forever.