Rebecca Skloot is a science writer and journalist whose work has appeared on Radiolab, PBS Nova’s ScienceNOW, The New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, and others. Initially a student who failed the ninth grade for poor attendance, Skloot attended an alternative high school and took courses at Portland Community College, where she first learned about Henrietta Lacks. After working as a veterinary technician for several years, she went on to study biology at Colorado State University with the intent of pursuing veterinary medicine. However, her career aspirations changed when she discovered she enjoyed writing. Although her father, Floyd Skloot, is a novelist and poet, Skloot never thought she would like writing herself until she took writing classes in order to meet her university’s foreign language requirement. After graduating with a degree in biology, Skloot opted to get an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is her first book.
When Skloot first learned about Henrietta Lacks at Portland Community College, her father was undergoing experimental treatment for a viral brain infection as part of a research study. Her father differed from Henrietta in that he volunteered for the study, but Skloot’s deeply personal connection to medical research immediately aroused her curiosity about the woman behind the famous immortal cells. As Skloot encountered HeLa cells throughout her formal biology education, the lack of information on Henrietta continued to confound and intrigue her. Years later, while working on her MFA, she envisioned creating a book that explored both who Henrietta was and the scientific legacy of her cells. Skloot spent ten years researching and writing the book. In addition to the challenges she faced in her research, Skloot also faced a rocky road to publication. She cut ties with her second editor because the editor did not want to include the extensive portions on the Lacks family, which was important to her vision. The book finally sold at auction to Crown Publishers.
Skloot’s research on Henrietta Lacks differed from that of other journalists because of its focus on Henrietta and the Lacks family. Initially, the Lacks family was reluctant to share their story with Skloot because of their negative experiences with previous journalists and medical professionals, and because they are wary of people who profit from Henrietta’s story while they continue to live in poverty. Conversely, Skloot wanted to be transparent with the Lacks family and share with them everything she learned, and she had to repeatedly earn their trust in order to continue her research. Because journalistic standards dictate against paying someone for their story, Skloot decided to repay the family by setting up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation alongside the book’s publication. This organization provides financial support and education for descendants of Henrietta Lacks and other individuals who have been affected by unethical medical research. The organization also seeks to raise awareness of the ethical issues within biomedical research, including consent and access to healthcare. Over the course of her research, Skloot developed a deep friendship with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who passed away in 2009. Skloot has remained in contact with several members of the family since the publication of the book.
The book was released to great critical acclaim. In 2010, the book won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and the Best Book of the Year Award from the National Academy of Science, among others. It was one of the bestselling books of the year and remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for over seven years. In 2017, HBO released a for-television movie based on the book, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot, and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta Lacks. HBO called in members of the Lacks family to consult on the film, but not all family members were pleased. Lawrence Lacks refused the offers to consult and criticized the film’s portrayal of his family. He has asked that Skloot transfer the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to his control and that other Lacks family members stop speaking to the press without his approval. In 2017, he requested that HBO and Harpo films each donate ten million dollars to a new foundation in his name, and in 2018 he and his lawyer put together a lawsuit to sue for guardianship of his mother’s cells.
The story of Henrietta Lacks is inextricable from American slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racial segregation. As a child, Henrietta grew up doing chores on the same plantation her ancestors had worked as enslaved people, and institutionalized racism continued to affect her life into adulthood. In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, thirty-one years after the 14th amendment granted citizenship to former slaves, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it constitutional for public spaces to enforce “separate but equal” accommodations for white and black people. This ruling, amongst others, legalized racial segregation throughout the Southern states and led to widespread inequality and violent discrimination. Even hospitals had segregated wards, and many hospitals did not treat black patients at all. Black Americans often waited longer for treatment of serious illnesses because of disproportionate poverty and the inaccessibility of quality medical care. As a result of discriminatory healthcare practices, Henrietta Lacks had to travel twenty miles to get to a hospital that could treat her cancer.