Story of Henrietta Lacks is a riveting read
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" (Crown 2010/Broadway2011) by Rebecca Skoolt has spent over three years on the New York Times bestseller list and it is not difficult to see why.
Skloot relates the riveting story of Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Medical researchers discovered her cells, known as HeLa, possessed unexplainable immortal properties. Over the past 60 years, HeLa cells have been instrumental in contributing to scientific breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. Her cells have enabled scientists to better understand the effects of the atom bomb, cancer and HIV. However, all of this work was undertaken without the knowledge and consent of either Henrietta or her family. Her children never even knew about their mother's cells until the 1970s when scientists attempted to experiment upon them. None of the companies or laboratories who profited from the HeLa cells ever sought their consent. Skloot's book changed all that.
Rebecca Skloot first encountered the HeLa cells as a high-school student. Her biology teacher knew little about the woman whose cells had changed medical history, only that she was black and deceased. Throughout her subsequent career as a biologist and a writer, Skloot searched for the elusive woman whom history appeared to have forgotten. What she encountered was a story of exploitation and prejudice, deeply rooted in the mores of 20th Century America. At the same time she forged relationships with Henrietta's children and learned they too were searching for the mother they still missed. The Immortal Life chronicles their twin journeys as they came to learn about each other, about Henrietta, and about the remarkable legacy of her immortal cells.
The Immortal Life grapples with issues essential to who we are as Americans: race relations, women's rights, health care and poverty, and the developing consciousness of the medical profession. Skloot's book ultimately reveals the triumph of tenacity and courage. Now admirers of the book can meet two of Henrietta's surviving family members in person. Marshall is honored to have David Lacks Jr. and Kim Lacks appear as guests to discuss the amazing legacy of their grandmother. They are the children of David "Sonny" Lacks, a featured figure in The Immortal Life.
"The Truly Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Her cells revolutionized modern science; now meet the family who lives with her legacy" will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 27, in the Marshall University Foundation Hall. President Stephen Kopp will introduce David Lacks Jr. and Kim Lacks. Aaron Dom, president of the 2015 Medical School class and Matthew Osteen, captain of the Thundering Word and junior in the College of Honors host a question-and-answer session. A book signing will follow the formal event. Copies of the book will be available for purchase. The event is free and open to the public.
Laura Michele Diener is an assistant professor of History and Women's Studies at Marshall University.
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