CORVALLIS, Ore. - Almost every important medical discovery involving human cells can be traced back to the death of one woman -- who never gave permission for her cells to be used.

The life of that woman, and how her family continues to deal with the pain as well as the wonder of her still-living cells, is the subject of science journalist Rebecca Skloot's highly acclaimed, best-selling book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Skloot will give a talk at Oregon State University at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 20, in the Memorial Union main lounge, 2501 S.W. Jefferson Way, Corvallis.

A book sale and signing will follow the talk.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" tells the harrowing, painful and true story of a 31-year-old African American woman who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31 and whose cells have contributed to just about every major scientifically-tested breakthrough of the last 50 years. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American 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. Lacks' cells, known as HeLa, are the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture and are still alive today, though Lacks has been dead for more than 60 years.

In addition to weaving the story of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot's debut book deals with controversial issues such as bioethics, the history of experimentation on African Americans, patient's rights, racism, and commodification of human tissue.

HeLa's cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions -- yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Skloot became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family, especially Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother's cells. Skloot's book reports that the entire family had no knowledge for decades that their mother's cells were taken and used, and they never received a penny from the multimillion dollar industry that was launched from the use of her cells.

Rebecca Skloot grew up in Portland and her father, writer and poet Floyd Skloot still lives in the city. She is a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review and many other publications. She is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine and has worked as a correspondent for NPR's RadioLab and PBS's Nova ScienceNOW.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," her first book, was published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, and debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list on February 21. The book was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick for Spring 2010.

This lecture is made possible by the Horning Endowment in the Humanities, with support from the Medical Humanities initiative. For more information, contact the History Department at 541-737-8560 or visit

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Elissa Curcio, (541) 737-8560