Jasmine Young | Editor in Chief
The cancerous cells from a poor tobacco farmer from Baltimore turned out to be an answer to prayer for many scientists and the basis of much disease prevention and vaccine development, but the farmer’s identity has remained anonymous for over 50 years.
On Sunday, Sept. 23, Elmhurst College hosted Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the One College, One Book selection for 2012-2013. Skloot is also the 2012 Quest Lecturer for Elmhurst College.
In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Skloot tells the story of this poor farmer, who died from cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31. An African-American woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks, the farmer was treated in the “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only nearby hospital that would treat African-Americans at the time. Shortly before Lacks’ death, her cancerous cells were extracted from her body to be tested, and the cells became the first cells to rapidly reproduce outside of the body. They were named HeLa cells, and they are still rapidly growing, though scientists are currently unable to explain why.
“Many people don’t know her story,” Skloot said. “Most scientists have never even heard Henrietta’s name. I never imagined I would write a book about HeLa cells … but this 11-year experience has turned into a deep, challenging relationship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah and a book that has revealed the woman behind these immortal cells.”
The testing of HeLa cells aided in the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning and more. The cells were also used in the first space missions to document the response of cells at zero gravity.
Professor Emeritus of biology Roger Kennett participated in the “Genetic Characteristics of the HeLa Cell” study released in 1976. The research included conducting tests on Lacks’ husband and children “in an effort to clarify the characteristics of the HeLa cell and establish its probable genotype for better-known poly-morphisms,” according to the report.
“When HeLa cells were established in culture in 1951, the use of cell culture to study cell biology was in its infancy,” Kennett said in an email. “The relative ease with which one could grow HeLa cells in culture resulted in their being very important in the development of cell culture techniques for the study of cell biology and for the study of cancer. Many saw it as an opportunity to understand the basic differences between cancer cells and normal cells.”
The Lacks family was never notified of the existence of the HeLa cells and their scientific contribution until family members were contacted in the 1970s to have their cells tested. In her book, Skloot explores the Lacks family experiences, especially that of Henrietta’s daughter Deborah Lacks-Pullum.
“Deborah told me, ‘Don’t let me or anyone else stop you from writing this book,’” said Skloot.
Beginning in March 2012, the One College, One Book committee sifted through over 50 book suggestions before selecting “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” for this year. According to Laura Rizzo, professor of library science and committee member, the work was chosen because of the broad range of topics covered in the book.
“One of the primary reasons we chose the book is that it would interest a lot of different departments and that a lot of people from different backgrounds could bring their perspectives to the table and (engage) in conversations,” said Rizzo.
Committee member and college librarian Lisa Richmond added, “There are avenues in this book from so many different directions. The science is interesting; the ethical questions are interesting, (as well as) the politics, social policy and race. Every year that we select a book we look for one that’s going to have a broad appeal.”
The committee plans to host events on campus to discuss the various facets of the work and to offer a forum for faculty, students and staff to connect. The committee attempted to host Skloot on campus; however, the cost of her attendance was too expensive, according to Richmond and Rizzo.
The book was a New York Times bestseller after its release in 2010 and has won numerous awards and acclaim including the Ambassador Book Award in American Studies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Young Adult Science Book Award, and it made over 60 “Best of the Year” lists.
The “Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is also being turned into an HBO movie by former TV host and producer Oprah Winfrey and award-winning director Alan Ball.
Since the release of the book, Skloot has established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to enable the Lacks family to receive a portion of the book sale proceeds through education and emergency health care grants. According to the foundation’s website, “As of July 31, 2012 the Board of Directors of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation has awarded 33 grants. Twenty-three grants were for tuition and books, eight for medical or dental aid, and two were for other emergency needs.”
When the book was chosen for the One College, One Book program, the committee was unaware of the broad impact that the story has had; however, it hopes that the book will appeal to all and that groups would take up the book on their own.
“One College, One Book is uniquely beneficial to the campus community because it is an opportunity for collaborative thought among people of varying expertise,” Jeremy Browning, student representative on the One College, One Book committee, said in an email. “Like many academic institutions, Wheaton … could profit from community-based endeavors. One College, One Book generously provides that opportunity.”
Photos courtesy of Amazon.com and rebeccaskloot.com
Printed in the September 28, 2012, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.