This conversation originally aired February 19, 2010.
In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed tissue from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks—without her consent. She died of cervical cancer shortly afterward, but her cells miraculously kept multiplying. Researchers around the world made amazing advances with those cells, even helping to cure polio. But they didn’t tell Henrietta Lacks’s family, even though they named the cells “HeLa” after Mrs. Lacks.
Science journalist Rebecca Skloot has written a comprehensive account of the HeLa cells story called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot’s book chronicles the devastating effect that the discovery of the HeLa cells had on the Lacks family, and it raises some uncomfortable questions about race, class, religion, family, privacy, intellectual property — just about everything. Rebecca Skloot joins Tom Hall to explore some of those questions.