It was an honor to partner with the Indianapolis Public Library to host The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks author Rebecca Skloot and members of the Lacks family, Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson, last night at Northview Middle School. Thank you to the nearly 700 inquisitive participants who joined us for the conversation which helped us better understand the fascinating story of the HeLa cells and the incredible journey that brought Skloot and the family together, or as she’s now known, “Rebecca Skloot Lacks.”
As we mentioned last night, the program was offered as part of a larger, year-long initiative developed by Indiana Humanities called One State / One Story: Frankenstein. In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel, we’re urging Hoosiers throughout the state to read and reflect on this remarkable text. With more than 600 programs happening statewide, and dozens happening in Indianapolis due to a wonderful partnership with the Indianapolis Public Library, Frankenstein is truly alive in the Hoosier state.
But what does Frankenstein have to do with the story of Henrietta Lacks? It’s hard to believe an 18-year-old Mary Shelley wrote a novel that resonates so strongly 200 years later. The questions that Shelley asks are ones that Skloot and the Lacks family also struggled with – what are the possibilities of science, and are what its limits? Just because something is medically or technologically possible, should we do it? Who is responsible for the results of scientific creations and who gets to benefit from these developments? What does it mean to be alive, or even to be human, in an age of increasing technological innovation?
Skloot addressed those questions and more during her talk and we were treated to a slide show of family pictures and memorabilia documenting how this book has impacted the family over the past decade.
Here are five things we learned:
1. HeLa cells changed everything and there is still nothing else like it – HeLa cells launched some of the most important scientific discoveries of our time including the polio vaccine, hundreds of drugs including cancer fighting tamoxifen and in-vitro fertilization.
2. Skloot did not plan to be a science writer and actually failed her science class – The inspiration for the book came from a community college biology class that she took after flunking it in high school. She had to take the class to get enough credits to graduate. The teacher lit a spark by noticing her curiosity about HeLa cells and encouraged her to write about it.
3. Deborah Lacks and Skloot’s strength, passion and persistence were the driving force for completing the story – Deborah made Skloot promise that she wouldn’t give up or let anyone keep her from writing the book even when it felt impossible. She wanted the story to be different for the next generation of Lacks family members. Through their travels Deborah helped Skloot see that learning is a privilege.
4. The things that happened to the family were inconceivable– As Skloot noted “everything happens to them before it happens to other people,” and so many aspects of the story were impacted by race. In the 1950’s doctors and scientists did not ask for consent from patients before including them in experiments and often went even further including injecting people with radiation, allowing African American patients with syphilis to die even though treatment was available, and infecting children with hepatitis. At the hospital where Henrietta was treated the doctors justified using her in experiments because, as a poor black woman, she was receiving free treatment.
5. “If you don’t speak out history will repeat itself” – Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson have continued to travel across the country and the world telling their story to scientists, health care workers, and citizens to advocate for informed consent. They are also incredibly proud of the role the HeLa cells have played in scientific discoveries and alleviating suffering.
What’s next for Rebecca Skloot? Skloot ended by sharing that her next book will be on a topic that started her down this path in the first place – animal testing in science. Learn more!