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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Readers around the country have made Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks an instant bestseller. The New York Times calls the nonfiction work “a thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics, and crippling poverty.”

During a February 24 reading on campus, Skloot let a Gallaudet audience judge for themselves. During her visit, the author presented the story of the late Henrietta Lacks, who in the 1950s unknowingly gave cells from her cancerous tumor to scientific researchers, from several angles. Lacks’s hardy “HeLa” cells, she said, “were one of the most important things to happen to medicine in the last 100 years.” The tragic and fascinating story shows how even this fact did not help Lacks’s family crawl out of poverty, attain better education, or even obtain access to affordable health care. For years, they received no credit or compensation.

Aside from telling the story of these famous cells and the Lacks family, the book follows a daughter’s journey toward understanding her mother’s contribution to modern science, and an author’s investigation into questions that bothered her from the age of 16.

Also, the book shows the fate of black deaf children during the Jim Crow era. “I think it’s important to recognize this is also part of our community story,” said Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, who introduced the author.

The campus visit became emotional for Skloot. She discovered that Gallaudet once housed a school for black deaf students in the 1950s, and a few years later an integrated school. Lacks’s deaf and hard of hearing children were of school age and lived in Baltimore during that period, but the family was never aware that such a school existed. Forced through public schools that never recognized they were deaf, let alone accommodated their needs, the children barely learned to read and write. Gallaudet “is such an important place,” Skloot said, “and you’re all very fortunate to have it.”

Several faculty members felt fortunate to have the author visit when she did, seeing a direct connection between the book’s topics and their classwork this semester. Students in the Department of Philosophy and Religion’s “Bioethics and the Deaf Community” are discussing issues raised by Skloot, as are students taking the GSR 240: “Research Ethics in the Social Sciences,” a joint offering by Philosophy and Religion and the Sociology Department. The GSR 230: “Biodiversity and Bioethics” will be discussing this issue in connection with the idea of intellectual property and research ethics.

The reading also proved helpful for EDF 812: “Qualitative Methods,” where doctoral students were scheduled to have a guest lecture on that evening on the standards for research proposals. Gallaudet’s Institutional Review Board requires that researchers obtain “informed consent” in writing from participants–something Henrietta Lacks’s attending doctors neglected to do.

Also, the Biology Department uses HeLa cells in its labs. Thanks to the author’s visit and Skloot’s book, students can now read about the woman–and the story–behind the specimens.
(Rebecca Skloot’s talk was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and Religion, the Graduate School, and the Schaefer Distinguished Lecturer Program, which is supported by the William H. and Ruth Crane Schaefer Endowment. Arrangements for Skloot’s appearance were made through Greater Talent Network, Inc. in New York.)
–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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