Skloot highlights immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

Assembly Series program on medical mystery March 23

What book published in 2010 was included in more than 60 “best of the year” lists, won seven national book awards, is currently No. 10 on The New York Times’ bestseller list, and is being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball?

It’s a book with a strange title and even stranger, true story. It is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the debut book by Rebecca Skloot, who will give an Assembly Series talk at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, in Graham Chapel.

The program is free and open to the public.

At 7 p.m. March 23, Skloot also will give an interview at the Missouri History Museum, which is free and open to the public as well.

Henrietta Lacks was virtually unknown for almost 60 years, until Skloot, a science writer, essayist and journalist, heard her story and was so intrigued she began a decade-long quest to find the truth and tell Lacks’ story.

What Skloot uncovered was an incredible saga that illuminates the still-murky intersection of medical science, race and class.


It’s a medical mystery and a cultural commentary that captures the myriad ethical issues inherent in such a story, especially considering the dark history of experimentation on African Americans and the legal and ethical debates over who controls the “stuff” we are made of.

Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer in the indigent ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the time, doctors at Johns Hopkins had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find cell lines that would replicate. While she was a patient at the hospital, samples of Lacks’ cells were extracted from her body, without her knowledge or her consent.

With Lacks, the scientists hit paydirt. Her cells, nicknamed “HeLa,” launched a medical revolution and generated spectacular medical discoveries and treatments, as well as spectacular wealth for many.

Armed with this information, Skloot notified Lacks’ family, who were devastated. Out of a sea of questions raised by the family, one in particular stood out: If Lacks was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her family afford health insurance?

To help remedy this situation for the Lacks family, Skloot founded and serves as president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, whose mission is to give those who have benefited from the HeLa cells a way to acknowledge Lacks’ contributions.

The foundation also offers financial assistance to African Americans who wish to pursue careers in science and medicine.

Skloot has taught creative writing at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as science journalism at New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

Skloot earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh.

WUSTL co-sponsors for this event are: Diversity Initiatives; the departments of African and African-American Studies, Education, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, all in Arts & Sciences; the Woman’s Club of Washington University; University Libraries; the Social Justice Center; and government and community relations.

Additional sponsors are the Missouri History Museum and the Academy of Sciences.

For more information on this and future Assembly Series programs, visit or call (314) 935-4620.

For information on Skloot’s appearance at the Missouri History Museum, visit or call (314) 746-4599.