Terra Sigillata


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Some readers may be aware that Rebecca Skloot is about to release her much-anticipated book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a story that is about much more than the black Southern woman whose cervical cancer gave rise to the most famous human cancer cell line. (Crown, 2 Feb 2010, preorder here).

HeLa cells, as they are known, have played a role in the development of vaccines for polio and cervical cancer, the part of last year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Harald zur Hausen, and the PhD thesis 20 years ago of a certain natural products pharmacology blogger.

Having been invited to serve as a scientific reviewer of the manuscript, I can tell you that Skloot’s book is a wonderfully engaging tale that is about much more than the history of the establishment and propagation of a cell line. Indeed, this is unquestionably and foremost a painstakingly-researched narrative of the science behind the cells and the personalities at the center of their popularization. But the true power of this work is that it is woven with a simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of the Lacks family and the evolution of bioethics in medicine.

What I least expected, perhaps, was to be so deeply touched by Skloot’s rich account of African-American medical history and life in the South for blacks from pre-slavery times through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I could almost feel the oppressive humidity and smell the sun-bleached wood of long-abandoned tobacco drying houses. Since joining ScienceBlogs over three years ago, I’ve received a large number of free books to review. None have ever touched the scientist and the soul like this book.

Skloot’s book is already drawing acclaim, having been named a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick for Spring 2010 and this starred review by Publishers Weekly:

Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about “faith, science, journalism, and grace.” It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women–Skloot and Deborah Lacks–sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line–known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot’s portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people. (Feb.) [tagline emphasis mine -APB]

I wanted to share an idea on how readers can support Rebecca (and other writers like her) who have books from major publishing houses that increasingly do not provide support for book tours (no offense intended to the publishing house since I had a book with them in 1997 and did not get a book tour either).

For such an academically-minded book that appeals to both scholars and the lay public interested in science, ethics, race, culture, and medicine, I’ve been working on funding Ms. Skloot’s visit to PharmboyLand by soliciting support from various university lecture series programs.

How can you do the same?

If you’re at a medical or pharmacy school, hit up your cancer center or medical humanities program. If you are at a minority institution, you can hit up your programs that address health disparities or medical mistrust/racism issues. If you are in an arts & humanities department, you can hit up the folks who bring in speakers on Southern culture and history.

For you undergraduate, graduate and medical students, I know that you have student activities fund pools that would give you hundreds of bucks to a grand or two to bring in a speaker and that those funds sometimes go unspent because you really don’t know who would be a good choice.

Well, choose Skloot. Rebecca is the kind of writer and speaker you want to bring to town. I know about 300 folks who would tell you the same after we all packed a lecture hall last year at ScienceOnline’09 to hear her talk about the book and read excerpts. “Moving and engaging of both the heart and mind” is what my tasting notes read from last year.

Then, when Skloot is at your university, you’ll bring her around to all the indy bookstores in your area that host readings and signings. Organize dinners with local media, bloggers, women in STEM groups, local authors. Get her on your local radio station. Help her make interview contacts for your local paper. People will thank you for bringing Rebecca’s work to your community. I’ve done this kind of thing for others before and it’s great fun, especially when you’re promoting someone who you admire.

And to think that you don’t even have to take ten years out of your life to write a book to have such a satisfying experience.!

Here is her tour map below and you can click on this link to go to Google and get the embed code for your own blog to produce this annotated map.

View The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Book Tour in a larger map

Note that if you are in the Northeastern US, you will have the double pleasure of being joined by Skloot’s father, creative nonfiction, writer, poet, and novelist, Floyd Skloot. Here is a lovely article, Tales of a Literary Dynasty, by John Calderazzo from the alumni mag of Colorado State University about the father and daughter team (Rebecca is a 1997 BS biological sciences grad of CSU).

To contact Rebecca Skloot regarding a book tour stop in your town, email her and get more details from this post on her blog, Culture Dish.

Addendum (9 Nov 2009): A few days after I composed the above post, Rebecca appeared on the cover of Publishers Weekly (detailed here), with several articles therein. She wrote one of those articles, specifically about the book tour. This is a great paragraph:

Readers and writers crave personal connections with each other. The online world allows that in wonderful ways, but it doesn’t replace face time. Perhaps this is especially true for writers like me. Many readers are convinced that all science writing is boring. When they hear about my book, their eyes glaze (great, a book about cells). But when I start telling the story of those cells–one of the most important tools in medicine, taken from a poor black woman without her knowledge, bought and sold by the millions while her family struggled to afford health insurance–that gets their attention. And their attention means more than book sales: I spent a decade digging this story out from dusty basements, archives, and memories, because I believe it’s an important one that needs to get out to the world.

And this is why you need to bring her to your town.

Comments

  1. #1 Rebecca Skloot
    November 5, 2009

    Thank you so much for all the kind words, Abel! For anyone interested in considering The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for course adoption, Random House just posted a limited time offer giving away free advanced copies to teachers while supplies last. So you can request a copy here:

    http://makemerequiredreading.com/2009/11/03/free-advance-readers-copy-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-by-rebecca-skloot/

  2. #2 Joe
    November 6, 2009

    She should contact http://www.wamc.org (NPR station, Albany NY). They may have the largest audience of any NPR station, they have about 12 transmitters that cover northern PA, almost all (maybe all) of NY, all of VT, and western MA and CT. Plus, they have a nationally syndicated Book Show.