The Story Behind a Best-Seller

In "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," a Pitt-trained author chronicles the story of the world’s first “immortal” cells—and their unwitting donor.



Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

When Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman seeking treatment for cervical cancer, entered The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the early 1950s, her story may have seemed unremarkable. But recounting now, 60 years later, how her cancer cells formed the basis of a medical revolution, author Rebecca Skloot sheds new light on Henrietta’s microscopic contribution that grew to become a significant portion of modern medicine.  

After honing her skills in the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate-level creative nonfiction program, Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a New York Times best-seller that fuses the story of the Lacks family and the famous HeLa cell line into a vivid narrative. “Science writing is often just about ‘the facts,’” raved a New York Times review, but “Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.”

In a passionate tone that does not drift into reading too clinically, Skloot reports the impact of this remarkable medical discovery with unforgettable characters and her keen comic eye. Henrietta’s cancer cells—now referred to as “HeLa cells” and named after their donor—were the first human cells to continuously reproduce in a laboratory.

Almost 60 years after Henrietta’s death in 1951, HeLa cells are still grown in culture and have produced more than 50 million metric tons of cells—or approximately the weight of about 100 Empire State Buildings—for a wide range of medical tests. Among the first applications for the HeLa cells was the testing of the polio vaccine at Pitt by Dr. Jonas Salk.

But the Lacks family knew nothing about the replication of HeLa cells until 1971 when a family friend working at the National Cancer Institute told them of the connection. “The family’s feelings are mixed,” Skloot says. “They are proud of Henrietta’s contribution but not happy with the way [the cell distribution] happened.”Skloot set out to unravel the human and scientific story in 1999—but completing the book took 10 years. During that time span, she repeatedly drove her “beat-up black Honda” to rural Clover, Va., to evoke Henrietta’s tobacco-farming youth. She spent weeks digging through historical archives, documenting the scientific discoveries that grew as the HeLa cells flourished and overcoming one of her biggest challenges—befriending Henrietta’s children and grandchildren. Skloot eventually formed a wary bond with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah Lacks, who initially viewed Skloot as “one in a long line of white people” who had approached with questions about the family’s medical history.

Skloot’s fascination with the HeLa story began in a high school science class and continued through graduate school at Pitt, where she studied from 1999 to 2003. Her studies at Pitt, coupled with her undergraduate degree in biology from Colorado State University, gave Skloot the chops to tackle the complex subject. But she credits Lee Gutkind, who founded the Pitt creative nonfiction program, with encouraging the project. “I came to Pitt knowing nothing about writing,” Skloot says. “It took three years to catch up on things I hadn’t read and learn about the business of writing.”

Skloot gained experience and connections as an assistant editor of Creative Nonfiction, a journal that’s now a magazine, and as a contributor to Pitt Med, the well-regarded science quarterly.

Now a 37-year-old assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis, Skloot continues her writing on science in The New York Times Magazine, O: the Oprah Magazine and other national periodicals. She also blogs at Culture Dish (scienceblogs.com/culturedish).
 

Pittsburgh was a February stop on the book tour that Skloot will continue through June. Wherever she speaks, she encounters the same question: Wasn’t it illegal for doctors to take Henrietta’s cells without consent? Her answer remains constant: It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

“So many issues raised in the book are relevant today. The process of getting consent for tissue research is still unclear. We simply sign blanket consent forms,” she says.

“Yes, it leads to science’s most important advances, like vaccines. But should access to the cells be free? It’s part of the bigger debate about bioethics and health care.” The question remains, Skloot says, “How do we learn today from what happened?”
 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

The online grocery delivery service opened this week, promising delivery in 45 minutes or less to selected neighborhoods.
Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

In its 225th year, the reference book on weather suggests we tune up our snow-removal equipment.
Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

The Ross native finished third on NBC's “The Voice” in December of 2014.
Up Close Photo Gallery: 10 New Perspectives of Pittsburgh

Up Close Photo Gallery: 10 New Perspectives of Pittsburgh

Zoom in on the places that make our region so fascinating and diverse.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

There are plans afoot for a international museum of beer to be built and staffed right here in Pittsburgh.
Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

After an extended hiatus, the storied rivalry between the Pitt Panthers and Penn State Nittany Lions returns in September to Heinz Field.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

The online grocery delivery service opened this week, promising delivery in 45 minutes or less to selected neighborhoods.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Our dining critic (and Three Day Blow organizing committee member) has a roundup of some open to the public events.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

These comic book shops offer more than just your casual Batman or Spider-Man choices.

Comments


New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

If you’re in need of a dining option that’s not a national chain while visiting the Robinson area, this is one to keep in mind.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

The Steelers running back emphasized his latest suspension resulted from missed random drug tests, and not a relapse into the marijuana-induced haze that got him jammed up last season. But if you lack the maturity to grasp the consequences of your actions (or, in this case, inactions), does it really matter?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Straight out of Canada, the custom menswear store opens its first U.S. location in Pittsburgh.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Hipsters in Iraq, Cops and Robbers in the Old West

Hipsters in Iraq, Cops and Robbers in the Old West

Reviews of "War Dogs" and "Hell or High Water," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

Want even more Real Pittsburgh Weddings? We'll be bringing them to you throughout the fall, beginning with this lovely and lucky couple.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

The store famous for carrying storage and organizational products is set to open at the revamped Block Northway in Ross Township.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

A fall visitation day and a Saturday information session aim to allow interested students a look into life at the university.

Comments