SFGH to Host Conversation with Author Rebecca Skloot

The UCSF community is invited to hear a conversation with Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book that critically examines how scientists have engaged with communities of color to conduct medical research.

Skloot’s book specifically tells the story of Lacks, an African American woman, and her family, and highlights the major implications of using her cells to conduct scientific research.

The Special Grand Rounds on the “History and Ethics of HeLa Cell Line,” will be presented on Wednesday, April 28, from noon to 2 p.m. in the Carr Auditorium at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH).

Lacks, known to scientists as HeLa, was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became one of the most important tools in medicine.

The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though Lacks has been dead for more than 60 years. HeLa cells were vital for:

  • developing the polio vaccine;
  • uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; and
  • helping to lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.

The cells have been bought and sold by the billions — yet Lacks remained virtually unknown until Skloot told her story in her debut book, which took more than a decade to research and write and instantly became a New York Times best-seller.

The Lacks family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than 20 years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent.

And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. The story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over the use of human biological materials.

More About Skloot

Skloot is a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range of topics, including tissue ownership rights and race and medicine. She is also a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s RadioLab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. 

Skloot has a B.S. degree in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She financed her degrees by working in emergency rooms, neurology labs, veterinary morgues and martini bars. Skloot has taught in the creative writing programs at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh; she’s also taught science journalism in New York University’s graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

The event on April 28 at SFGH is sponsored by Primary Care Medicine Residency Program at SFGH, Family and Community Medicine Residency Program, SFGH Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Family and Community Medicine and the UCSF CTSI Community Engagement & Health Policy Program.

Support has been provided by the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, UCSF Human Research Protection Program, University of California Medical Humanities Consortium, UCSF Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine and the UCSF School of Medicine Pathway on Health and Society.

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Rebecca Skloot