Librarians are more than doting old maids with a love of the Dewey Decimal System. They are a gateway to knowledge. Rebecca Skloot would know. When her curiosity was piqued during a community college biology class she ventured to the library to find out more information. Little did she know that it would lead to an eleven-year journey of research and writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Chances are you may have heard of the nonfiction book. It won numerous accolades upon publication, was a New York Times bestseller, and named the best book of 2010 by more than 60 media outlets. It was even given the National Academies Communication Award for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering, or medicine. Not bad for an author whose hardheadedness would get her kicked out of school as a teenager. That same hardhead demeanor would also be instrumental in helping Skloot finish the book.
In fact, once the novel was done she sent a draft to her biology teacher from community college that told her about Henrietta Lacks to begin with. Now did Rebecca Skloot get extra credit for the assignment, is what I’m wondering.
All joking aside, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks would not be the achievement it is if it were not for librarians. “Some of my favorite people,” Skloot said to a small ballroom audience at a recent speaking engagement. The setting was Beyond the Page, the inaugural benefit luncheon put on by the Houston Public Library Foundation (HPLF).
When the luncheon was arranged and Skloot announced as the featured speaker, the premium cable channel HBO had yet to set a date when its adaptation of the nonfiction book would air. So consider it a happy accident that Skloot speaking and the HBO premiere would nearly coincide (the luncheon occurred on April 12th; the film releases April 22nd). But the luncheon offered another platform for those in attendance: to hear the story behind the story.
Rebecca’s trip to the local library would lead her to Henrietta’s hometown of Clover, Virginia where a neighboring town library had records dating to the early 1900s. At twenty-one Henrietta, married and with two children, moved to Turner Station (which is now Dundalk – a suburb of Baltimore) in Maryland. She would have three more children before being diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins after feeling a knot in her womb. A biopsy revealed a mass on Lacks’s cervix.
What Henrietta never knew (she passed on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31) is that during her treatments two samples of cells – one healthy, the other cancerous – were taken from her cervix without permission. The cells from the cancerous sample became known as the “HeLa immortal cell line,” which was discovered to be the first human cells to be grown in a lab that were naturally “immortal.” Before this, cells survival rate in a lab environment was only a couple of days after being cultured from other human cells.
Henrietta would never know that her cells, which are still used in medical research today, would lead to Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in 1954 or discoveries pertaining to cloning and gene mapping.
All of this would still be a mystery if it were not for Rebecca Skloot and Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. Their relationship pretty much started the way Simon & Garfunkel ended as a music act. Rebecca had to spend nearly a year building Deborah’s trust in her. Working together Deborah would learn about the mother she never knew, while Rebecca got a story that could not be contained to a 10,000-word article.
At the luncheon Rebecca Skloot would speak for fifteen minutes describing what it was like interacting with Deborah. Henrietta’s youngest daughter was partially deaf and would carry a dictionary around to help her better understand the words being said by others. She wasn’t hesitant about stopping people midsentence so she could look up a word and read its definition. These actions made Rebecca that more determined to uncover a story not just relating to science and medicine but race and ethical rights. Its publication stirred debate among the scientific community and would lead to the creation of government oversight for patients rights in terms of releasing information of genetic cells.
Before fielding a few questions from the audience regarding the film adaptation, the author thanked libraries and literary discussion groups for spreading the story of Henrietta Lacks. The grassroots campaign and acclaim received in the fields of science and literature has turned a thorough examination of one woman’s life into a television event starring Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot and Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks. Five members of the family were paid consultants on the project exec. produced by Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under). Skloot acknowledged that she didn’t want the film to be just “another thing about the family” that was based on a true story. She wanted it to be “as non-fictional as possible.” Which is why she was the fact-checker (or “fact monitor,” as she described it).
Regardless of the public reaction to the HBO film, one thing is definitely clear: more people will know of Henrietta’s immortal life and Rebecca’s incredible journey in telling her story.
For more information about author Rebecca Skloot, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation (est. 2010), or the Houston Public Library Foundation, you can click on the links below.
Oh, one last thing. As it became evident that the amount of information on Henrietta Lacks would be turned into a book, Deborah told Rebecca that it would be a movie someday and Oprah Winfrey will play me. How about that prediction!