By Laura Stebbins, ThePerryNews Arts and Culture
Rebecca Skloot was expelled from school at an early age for refusing to nap. In her first year of high school, her grade point average was .5. She flunked high school biology class and finally landed in an alternative school that allowed her to take classes at a community college.
There she re-took biology at age 16, and in that biology class her teacher wrote, “Henrietta Lacks,” on the board and briefly mentioned HeLa cells (named for Henrietta Lacks—the first two letters in her first and last names). These miraculous HeLa cells were used across the world advancing science, cells, which Skloot later learned, Johns Hopkins Hospital had originally collected by removing a piece of Lacks’s tumor (she died of cervical cancer at age 31) and placing them into a dish without her consent or knowledge.
After class Skloot approached her teacher with questions about Lacks. Her teacher responded that he didn’t know any more about Lacks or the family but that if she wanted to do some research and write a paper for extra credit, she could.
Questions were swirling in her head about the Lacks family—“Does she (Henrietta Lacks) have kids, and what do they think about it?” How can everyone know about the cells and yet know nothing about the family or their thoughts and feelings about how their mother’s cells are being used?
Skloot had planned from the time she was a child to be a veterinarian. In her last year of college, she took a creative writing class because at the school she attended the class met the foreign language requirement. When her assignment was to write about something that had been forgotten, she chose to write about how the whole world had forgotten Henrietta Lacks. Her work in animal research and her interest in Henrietta’s story made Skloot interested in the ethical questions involved.
While still focused on her goal of becoming a vet, one of her teachers sat her down and made the case for why she should consider science writing as her career. He told her that letting go of a goal didn’t mean that you were a failure if you replaced it with a new goal. So during her senior year in college, she called her parents and told them that she was going to become a writer instead of a vet.
Her message to everyone, but to students especially, is to follow what she calls, “What Moments.” Skloot encourages us to give into curiosity and see where it takes us.
“When you have one of those ‘Wait, what?’ moments that happen all the time, follow it,” Skloot said Wednesday in a talk she gave at Hoyt Sherman Place Theater in Des Moines as part of the Des Moines Public Library’s AViD (Authors Visiting in Des Moines) series.
The story of Henrietta Lacks was one of Skloot’s “Wait, what?” moments. Wait, her cells have been spread across the world and used to advance science in ways too numerous to list,and yet her family knows nothing about it? What?
If you’re not familiar with Skloot’s bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” you should understand her cells were taken without her knowledge during a 1951 visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Because the cells never died and were doubling every 24 hours, factories ultimately were built to grow her cells, and the cells were bought and sold by the billions across the world for scientific research.
The story is described on Skloot’s website: “Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.”
More from the website (http://rebeccaskloot.com/): “’The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ Skloot’s debut book, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly hit the ‘New York Times’ best-seller list, where it remained for more than four years. The book was chosen as a best book of 2010 by more than sixty media outlets…and one of the 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime by Amazon.com….‘The Immortal Life’ has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. It is also being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.”
And about that extra credit paper. Years later Skloot sent her best-selling book along with a note to her former teacher, stating, “Here’s my extra credit paper.” The teacher had no memory of her, but commented that you teach because you “never know what one sentence is going to land on somebody.”
The AViD program is celebrating its 15th year this year. All programs are free and open to the public and include both the purchase and signing of books. Check their website for additional programming information (http://www.dmpl.org/events-news/avid).
Take advantage of the programs Des Moines has to offer as well as those available locally at the Perry Public Library and the Carnegie Library Museum. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was a book read and discussed by the Monthly Book Club, which meets the third Tuesday of every month at 1 p.m. in the Clarion Room of the Security Bank Building, 1102 Willis. It is led by Library Director Mary Murphy. The meetings are free and open to the public.
The book for April is also the All Iowa Reads book—“My Name is Mary Sutter,” a historical novel by Robin Oliveira. The book is about a headstrong midwife in Albany, N.Y. who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Since it is an All Iowa Reads book, the club will not meet during its normal Tuesday time in April but will participate in the April 30th discussion led by award-winning fiction writer George Minot at the Perry Public Library.
Prior to this Perry discussion, meet author Robin Oliveira at the free AViD event Monday, April 20, at 7 p.m. at the Central Library, 1000 Grand Avenue, Des Moines.
Monthly Tuesday Perry book club meetings will resume May 19 at 1 p.m. with “Those Who Save Us” by Jenna Blum.
Along with the Perry Public Library’s Monthly Book Club, Librarian Jill Cook also leads Quarterly Classics book discussions. The next Quarterly Classic discussion will be Tuesday, April 14 in the main reading room of the Carnegie Library Museum. The book will be the classic “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith. The meetings are free and open to the public.