By Rebecca Skloot
I first learned about Henrietta Lacks and her amazing HeLa cells in a basic biology class when I was 16 years old. My teacher, Mr. Defler, wrote Henrietta’s name on the chalk board and told us she was a black woman. That was it, and class was over.
I followed him to his office saying, “Who was she? Did she have any kids? What do they think about those cells?” He told me no one knew anything else about her. “But if you’re curious,” he told me, “go do some research, write up a little paper about what you find and I’ll give you some extra credit.”
At that point I was planning to be a veterinarian—something I’d been determined to do since I was a small child. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I looked for information about Henrietta but didn’t find anything, so I didn’t write that extra credit paper. But I never forgot about her—in fact, I was a bit obsessed by her.
More than a decade later, while working my way through a biology degree, I took my first creative writing class as an elective. (Amazingly, the school I went to counted creative writing toward its foreign language requirement, so I signed up just to fill a graduation requirement). At the start of that class, the teacher gave us this writing prompt: “Write for 15 minutes about something someone forgot.” I scribbled, “Henrietta Lacks” at the top of my page, then wrote an essay about how the whole world seemed to have forgotten about Henrietta, but I couldn’t—I was weirdly obsessed with her, and still wanting answers to those questions I’d asked my biology teacher so many years earlier.
Cells of Contention
Part mystery novel and part memoir, Skloot’s book introduces Henrietta Lacks and traces the development of HeLa into one of medicine’s most ubiquitous and important tools—a key to breakthroughs in diseases ranging from polio and cancer to AIDS and genetic conditions. But Skloot also explores the story’s negative aspects, including the removal of the cells without Henrietta Lacks’s knowledge, the fact that her family was not told about the cells for two decades, the violation of patient confidentiality, and the lack of compensation. In the book, Skloot also meets the Lacks family, distrustful after years of confusion and inaccurate information about what happened to their mother and her cells.
The story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa offers insights on current bioethical debates, which UAB’s incoming freshmen will discuss at events throughout the year. The first occurred immediately after they checked in this August; a panel discussion featured Mona Fouad, M.D., director of the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center; genetics chair Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D.; noted UAB bioethicist Gregory Pence, Ph.D.; and Dennis George Pantazis, J.D., a local lawyer with international expertise in human rights issues.
I fell in love with writing in that class but still had no intention of becoming a writer. I had what I now refer to as Veterinary Tunnel Vision. The only thing I had ever imagined being was a vet, so I focused all my energy in that direction and never thought that other options might exist.
Then one day, when I was getting ready to submit my applications for vet school, my writing teacher pulled me aside and said, Do you realize you’re a writer? And do you know there’s such a thing as a science writer? I didn’t. He told me he thought the world needed more people who understood science and could convey it to the public. You know, he said, you don’t have to go to vet school just because that’s what you always planned to do—you could go to graduate school in writing instead. I told him I couldn’t imagine giving up on my dream of becoming a vet. Then he said these essential words: Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed, as long as you have a new goal in its place. That’s not giving up, it’s changing directions, which can be one of the most important things you do in life. The next day I started researching MFA programs in creative nonfiction writing. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1988 when my biology teacher told me to see if I could find any information about Henrietta, neither one of us could have imagined I’d spend more than two decades working to answer a question he inspired in that classroom. When my book was done, I tracked down that teacher and sent him a copy with this note: “Dear Mr. Defler, here’s my extra credit paper. It’s 22 years late, but I have a good excuse: No one knew anything about her.” He was shocked. I was just one of thousands of students he’d taught in countless huge auditoriums, most of us (myself included) looking bored and half asleep. He didn’t remember that moment in class when he first told me about Henrietta, but I did. Which is the amazing thing about classrooms: You never know what random sentence from a teacher will change a student’s life.
These days I spend a lot of time talking to students about my path through school and how it led me to writing. My advice to them is this: Follow your curiosity. Don’t have tunnel vision. Take classes that interest you, even if they’re outside your major. When you hear things that make you curious, ask questions; follow that curiosity wherever it might lead you, and let yourself get swept away by it when it starts to take you in a direction you didn’t imagine going. If I hadn’t done that, I would be a veterinarian today, and I’d still be wondering who Henrietta Lacks was.
Learn more about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Rebecca Skloot at rebeccaskloot.com.