Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rebecca Skloot Returns to Portland

In early January 1951, a young African-American woman and mother of five went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, for treatment of what turned out to be cervical cancer. She died in October of that year from the cancer. Before administering radium to treat her, attending doctors took samples of her tissue, both cancerous and healthy, and gave them to Dr. George Gey, a scientist at Johns Hopkins who had been trying to establish a continuously reproducing or "immortal" human cell line for use in cancer research. No one asked the woman's permission first. In fact, she was not even told that the tissue samples had been taken. The samples were marked "HeLa," an abbreviation of the young woman's name, Henrietta Lacks.

Thirty-seven years after Henrietta's death, sixteen-year-old Rebecca Skloot sat in a biology classroom at Portland Community College, where she heard that name for the first time. She also learned that Gey was not only able to reproduce Henrietta's cells in the lab, but that they had never stopped growing. Her cells, the cancerous ones, became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. "HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years," her professor told the class. They've been bought and sold repeatedly for use in research to study diseases and develop treatments. They were instrumental in developing an understanding of the human genome.The original tissue sample has generated an estimated 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells.  But no one could tell Rebecca anything about the woman whose cells made all this medical progress possible. And thus a lifetime obsession was born.

Rebecca, the daughter of local poet and memoirist Floyd Skloot, went on to earn a BS in biological sciences from Colorado State University and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and became a well-respected science writer whose work has appeared in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies. She has taught in the creative writing and science journalism programs at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and NYU. Currently she is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, a science writer and speaker, and a teacher of writing workshops. She served for eight years on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle, where she was a vice president and judge for their yearly book awards.

But through all this time her fascination with learning about Henrietta Lacks never faltered. In part, it was because the same year she learned about Henrietta her father got sick with a mysterious illness that no one was able to diagnose. (It turned out to be a virus that caused brain damage.) As Rebecca drove her father to various doctor appointments, she wondered about Henrietta -- did she have children, and if so what did her children think about her cells being used like they were?

Rebecca provides the answers to those questions and more in her new book -- almost eleven years in the making -- The Immortal Life on Henrietta Lacks. The book was published by Crown in February and became an instant NY Times bestseller. In fact, this is what NYT book reviewer Dwight Garner had to say:

“I put down Rebecca Skloot’s first book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” more than once. Ten times, probably.  Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry.  And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time …It has brains and pacing and nerve and heart.” He went on to add that it is "as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Andromeda Strain.

Rebecca learned that Henrietta's family didn't find out about the use of her immortal cells until the '70s, and that although her cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits and in fact couldn't even afford health insurance. Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences. This is a remarkable story, beautifully written.  I am reading it right now and I can vouch for that! And how exciting for us that it comes from a Portland native!

We are thrilled to be working with Oregon Health Sciences University to host Rebecca on Tuesday, April 13th, at 4 pm at the Old Library Auditorium (3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Road). And we are thrilled that her father will be there to introduce her. You can click here to get more information. The event is free and you don't need to register to attend, but we encourage you to register to ensure adequate seating. After Rebecca speaks, she will be signing books and we will be there to sell them.

We hope you will be able to attend this event, as it is sure to be one to be remembered. You can learn more about Rebecca and her book at her blog, Culture Dish.

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