Monday, November 7, 2011

Springfield native Rebecca Skloot chronicles woman's immortal life

Rebecca Skloot, aged 16 and sitting in a classroom at Portland Community College, has no idea she’s about to have one of the pivotal moments in her life.

“Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector,” Skloot would write years later.

After a few confusing minutes lecturing about cellular biology, Defler wrote a name on the chalkboard in large letters: HENRIETTA LACKS.

Lacks, he explained, was a woman who died from cervical cancer in 1951. Scientists had taken a sample of her cancer cells and with them made a breakthrough. Where decades of work had failed to get human cells to grow in a lab, suddenly Henrietta’s cells were growing endlessly.

Since then, the cells have played a crucial role in medicine, from the polio vaccine to modern cancer research.

More than 20 years after that biology class, Skloot would chronicle the strange tale of the cells — and the family the cell “donor” left behind — in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The book has become a sensation: More than 1 million copies have been sold. It was named one of the best books of 2010 by many critics and newspapers. Oprah Winfrey is making it into a movie.

And after a decade toiling in relative obscurity, Skloot has become a sensation, too.

The author will talk about her book during a free lecture Wednesday night at Sangamon Auditorium, on the campus of the University of Illinois Springfield.

It’s a homecoming for Skloot: she was born in Springfield and spent the first 10 years of her life here.

Skloot was featured in an November 6, 2011, article in The State Journal-Register.

Read the article online