June 30, 2008

A New Science Obsession, a New Writing Hero

A Digg link led me to spend last Saturday evening snuggling with my Mac and ravenously reading science-y stuff instead of going out to comedy shows, partaking in Chicago street festivals, and taking advantage of a fancy Bucktown dinner invitation. I'm glad I did.

In 1951, a poor young black woman named Henrietta Lacks, married with 5 children, was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in a segregated Baltimore hospital shortly thereafter. She unknowingly left a physical legacy to science that is staggering in scope.

Without her grieving family's permission, the hospital took samples of her cancer cells, cultivated them, and sent them to labs around the world, where they have been a staple cell line, instrumental in developing the polio vaccine, researching leukemia and cancer, studying protein synthesis, viral growth, and much more.

Her cells, named "HeLa," multiply with fierce speed, crawling up the sides of test tubes and defying the Hayflick Limit (the normal number of times a cell line will divide), and are the first human cells to survive and replicate indefinitely independent of the human body. Left to their own devices, the HeLa cells could easily overtake all other life forms on Earth.

The HeLa cells have been part of zero-g experiments in space, been present at nuclear test sites around the world, and have evolved into a self-replicating, single-cell life-form which some biologists would like to classify as its own species. Astonishingly, more HeLa cells thrive today than when Mrs. Lacks herself was still alive -- they outnumber her original physical mass many times over.

In 2001, A Radcliffe Institute fellow, Charlene Gilbert, made the film "Colored Bodies" exploring the ethical issues involved in Mrs. Lacks' story, according to this piece in the Harvard Gazette: "Neither Henrietta nor the Lacks family gave permission for her cells to be used for research; in fact, the family didn't learn about the proliferation of HeLa cells until the early 1970s. The Lacks family - still poor and struggling to access health care - has not been compensated for the use of Henrietta's cells."

This brings us to Rebecca Skloot, my new writing hero. She writes engaging and brilliant pieces for Popular Science, The New York Times, and Discover Magazine, and is a correspondent for PBS's NOVA scienceNOW. She's written several articles about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells, and will soon publish a book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

As a newbie writer struggling to land enough work just to stay afloat, I am really inspired by this example of someone who follows her curiosities and explores her world through writing, and now I'm thinking more seriously about pursuing creative non-fiction. Thanks for being so awesome, Rebecca.

I hope you sell the movie rights to your book for a kajillion dollars and the amazing story of Henrietta Lacks can be shared with a wide audience.


Chancelucky said...

thanks for the links...sounds like a pretty fascinating story.

Just out of curiousity, I don't really see how any of this is creative non-fiction though.

Elizabeth McQuern said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Chance. I thought it was amazing, and I can't believe the story is not better known.

Skloot's work is generally described as creative nonfiction, which admittedly is a pretty vaguely defined (and new-ish) genre, but to me it means a fact-based piece that's not strictly journalistic, and uses literary styles to create a factually accurate narrative.

Melissa said...

This is amazing!

No pressure or anything, but you totally need to start writing noncreative fiction--wait, no...
well, whatever. You need to write a book so I can read it while I'm wasting away in Missouri and think of my brilliantly talented Auntie E.