Chancellor Biddy Martin introduced the event and the author by outlining the great impact this year’s Go Big Read book has had on our campus. Over 5,000 students received copies of the book at the Freshman Convocation, over 80 different classes on campus are using the book this semester, and many speaking events and book discussions have been organized, not the least of which we look forward to tonight.
Rebecca Skloot begins her speaking event by thanking the audience for attending the lecture, and conveying her sense of awe and thanks to her readers. She tells the audience that her kind of writing is “creative non-fiction,” which she describes as non-fiction writing that is “all true and journalistically accurate, but reads creatively.” She notes that this can sometimes be confusing, in that her book recounts dialogue from the 1950s, even though Skloot herself was not in the room as a witness. She states that she has painstakingly reconstructed the dialogue that appears in her book via interviews and historical documents, using very little (if any) creative license.
Skloot recounts for the audience an except from her book, when Henrietta first discovers what she has expected for a long time, a “knot on her womb.” Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins hospital, the nearest hospital that would treat African Americans during the Jim Crow era. The examining gynecologist discovers a tumor, which is biopsied, that has likely grown extremely rapidly over the previous 3 months. He then shares the samples with another doctor at the hospital, George Gey, who proceeds to make them into the most famous – the first immortal – cells in the world.
In 1951 it was common for doctors to take tissue samples from patients without their consent. At the time, scientists had no concept of DNA, and had no idea how much personal information was contained within those cells. To this day, scientists still do not understand what makes HeLa cells so virulent. Henrietta died within 8 months of the tissue samples being taken.
The advances made possible by Henrietta’s cells are numerous: the polio vaccine, the effects of space space travel on human cells, the first cloned cells, the first genes to be mapped, numerous cancer medications, and the HPV vaccine. But Henrietta’s family did not understand these concepts. They initially felt that her cells must be related to Henrietta’s peace after death, her afterlife. Her family worried that the experiments being done with her cells might be causing her pain.
Rebecca Skloot became involved with the family in the 1990s. Skloot traces her interest in Henrietta’s story back to her own experience with her father undergoing treatment for a viral infection via clinical trials. Only through persistence in sharing her own experiences and information was she able to gain the trust of Henrietta’s family.
Skloot recounts for the audience one last scene from her book that demonstrates her effort to share information with the family. Skloot arranges for Zakariyya and Deborah, two of Henrietta’s children, to visit the lab of a scientist working with HeLa cells. Only through openness and an effort to share information with the family was Skloot able to truly reach them, bond with them, and tell their story.