The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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Rebecca Skloot | Biography

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Early Life

Born September 19, 1972, in Springfield, Illinois, Rebecca Skloot is the daughter of Betsy McCarthy, a professional knitter and hospital administrator, and Floyd Skloot, a writer. Her family moved to Portland, Oregon, when she began high school, and she failed her first year. A self-proclaimed "derelict kid," she transferred to an alternative school and attended community college to make up credits. In a biology class she began an extra-credit project on Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells (the first two letters of the patient's first and last names). In 1997, she received a Bachelor of Science degree in biological science at Colorado State University, where she also took writing classes with a focus on science journalism. Then she enrolled in University of Pittsburgh for her master of fine arts (MFA) degree.

Further Education and Book Publication

When Skloot completed her MFA in creative nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh, she started writing a manuscript about forgotten women in science, but she soon narrowed her focus to Henrietta Lacks. Skloot's relationship with the Lacks family was tremendously important to her research during the 10 years it took her to research and write the book. The family learned to trust Skloot to use information responsibly and tell Henrietta Lacks's story in a sensitive and honorable way. Skloot's contact with the family soon grew into friendship, particularly with Henrietta's daughter Deborah Lacks. For Deborah Lacks, publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks stood as a symbol and validation of her trust in Skloot. Deborah hesitated to share her mother's story, her own story, and the stories of other Lacks family members. She feared Skloot's book might never be published; she also feared Skloot was receiving money to research it—money the Lacks family would never see.

As she researched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot was most concerned about three things: treating the Lacks family with respect, ensuring that Henrietta Lacks was honored for her contribution to medicine, and helping the family with expenses. Skloot founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which gives grants to Lacks family members and other people who participated in medical and scientific research without benefit, knowledge, or consent.

For Skloot's efforts, the Washington Post named her one of the Five Surprising Leaders of 2010. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a New York Times best seller and was named by many critics as one of the best books of 2010; a 2017 HBO movie adaptation, produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, renewed interest in the book.

Other Publications and Positions

Skloot coedited The Best American Science Writing 2011 with her father, Floyd Skloot. She taught creative writing and science journalism at her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, as well as at the University of Memphis and New York University. Skloot was a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle for eight years, and she also has been a correspondent for Nova ScienceNOW on PBS. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, the New York Times Magazine, and Discover, among other publications. Skloot lectured nationwide on bioethics—ethics in the medical industry—and ethics in science journalism and book publishing, highlighting these issues as they relate not only to the Lacks family but also to others in marginalized populations.

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