Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: The history and ethics of research on human biological materials

Monday, 24 November 2008, 16:00, Large Operon

Rebecca Skloot, free-lance writer


Award winning writer Rebecca Skloot will speak from her forthcoming book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tells the remarkable story of the HeLa cells – the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture.

In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a small sample of cervical cancer from a 30-year-old African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge or consent. A scientist put that sample into a test tube, and though Henrietta died a few months later, her cells became the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture and one of the most important tools in medicine. They were used to develop the polio vaccine and sent up in early space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity. Research on HeLa helped uncover the secrets of cancer, viruses, and the affects of the atom bomb; it led to important advances like in vitro fertilisation, cloning, stem cell research and gene mapping. Today, HeLa is still bought and sold by the billions and is still the most widely used cell line in labs worldwide.

Henrietta's cells did wonders for science, but also had dramatic and troubling consequences for her children and husband – an impoverished tobacco farmer with a third grade education who struggled to afford housing and healthcare, and didn't learn about the cells until 25 years after Henrietta's death.

Rebecca Skloot will trace the history of cell culture and the ethical debate surrounding research on human biological materials through the story of the HeLa cell line – the incredible science they inspired, the researchers who made it possible, and the collision between science and Henrietta's family. It's a story that raises important and complex issues about informed consent and commodification of human biological materials in an age when access to those materials is essential for medical advancement.


Rebecca Skloot is a contributing editor at the Popular Science magazine, and an award winning science writer. Her work appears in the New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Discover and others, including the PBS television series Nova ScienceNOW, and National Public Radio's RadioLab.

Skloot has taught in New York University's graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Programme and is now on the writing faculty at the University of Memphis. Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is forthcoming from Crown. For more information, visit www.rebeccaskloot.com