One Of The Greatest Stories Ever Told

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | February 23, 2010 11:06 am

Picture 1Last fall, I described a book I was highly anticipating called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. And unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve no doubt already read excerpts and phenomenal reviews, seen it covered on television, heard Rebecca on air, and watched it climb the New York Times bestseller list during these first weeks since publication. All of the praise is more than deserved, and I would add that the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, the immortal HeLa cell line, and the many dimensions to the story that Rebecca does such an extraordinary job of reporting, may just be one of the greatest true stories ever told.

Henrietta’s life wasn’t easy. She lost her parents by the age of four and worked hard alongside her cousins on a tobacco farm while facing the challenge of growing up as an African American woman in the south. After marrying young and having five children, Henrietta died at age 31 from cervical cancer. But around the time of her diagnosis, cancer cells from her cervix—famously known around the world as HeLa cells—were taken from her tumor to be used in research without her knowledge or consent.

HeLa cells were the first living human cells to be successfully grown in culture. They were distributed to scientists around the world and led to the vaccine for polio and many other diseases. HeLa taught scientists about chromosomes and genetic diseases like Down syndrome. They were launched into space to observe how space travel would affect human cells. They were inundated with toxins to understand cell response to different substances. They led to advances such as in vitro fertilization and helped win many Nobel Prizes. Over time, HeLa cells were cultured and copied and shipped and sold so many times, it’s estimated combined they would weigh over 50 million metric tons (equal to at least 100 Empire State Buildings).

Henrietta’s family was not told any of this for years. Her children and husband did not hear how their mother’s cells revolutionized medicine over and over as they were tested by researchers for seemingly ambiguous reasons. For-profit companies made billions off Henrietta’s cells, while those she cared about most often couldn’t even afford healthcare.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the life, death, and legacy of one of history’s most important individuals who all but lost her identity. Rebecca elegantly shares her true story which deals with science, ethics, and equality. The book spans nearly a century, and reflects the changing landscape of medicine, and the good, bad, and ugly side of research.

Most of all, it’s a human story that touches all of us. It’s beautiful, poignant, interdisciplinary, and should be required reading for every high school student.

I will have more to say about this wonderful book soon, but for now I leave readers with a single suggestion: Read it.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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