Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks FAQ #2: Did Skloot really flunk high school?

i-770c31d229f8d0d95f5ffc37baea5c26-Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.small.jpgI'm posting answers to FAQs about my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as an ongoing series on this blog.  In my last FAQ post, I told the story of how I first learned about HeLa cells at sixteen.  A related question I often get has to do with this one sentence in the book's prologue:

"I was a kid who'd failed freshman year at the regular public high
school because she never showed up. I'd transferred to an alternative
school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking
Defler's class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting
in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost."

People say, WHAT?! You failed high school?!

I posted about this as part of a guest blogging stint at Powells recently: It's true. My freshman
year, I got less than a 1.0 grade point average because I was busy
wandering the aisles reading books at Powells, and hanging out with friends in
coffee shops and Forest Park. But mostly I was busy pretending to be a student at Metropolitan Learning Center
(aka: MLC).  All of my friends went
to MLC, and I fit in better there than at my own school - MLC didn't give
grades, students got to design courses for themselves, teachers went by their
first names, we sat on the floor instead of lined up in desks, and we read
books like Howard Zinn's A People's History of
the United States
instead of a traditional history books. The only
problem was, I didn't get credit for classes at MLC freshman year, because I
wasn't enrolled there.

After failing my first year, I officially transferred to MLC
and started designing a curriculum for myself. Since I knew without a
doubt that I was going to be a veterinarian when I grew up (so much for certainty),
I arranged to take some pre-vet courses at the local community college
for high school credit, to help make up for the credits I'd missed my
first year. So really, the whole reason I learned about Henrietta and the
HeLa cells in the first place was that I'd flunked my first year of
high school and was lucky enough to find an alternative school that
gave me the freedom to follow my curiosity wherever it took me.

More like this

After reading this book, I can't believe you ever failed ANYthing. Your meticulous research combined with your kind and patient human nature AND your drive resulted in a book that teaches not only about the science of cells and tissue research but also about the human impact.

I give you A+. There is only one thing that concerns me and that is the use of dialect. I feel you hit the Eastern and Southern dialects on the button. I grew up in the South and could hear the voices of the Lacks family. But you did not treat the other dialects equally. Aside from the African-American characters, there was no dialect at all, just standard English. I'm just putting this out there as food for thought. When one white character, later in the book, in discussing people challenging the existing system of tissue research states: More power to you. I realized that if this had been recorded as precisely as you recorded the black dialect, you would have written "More power to ya."

Overall, your book is amazing. THANK YOU!

Thanks for your kind words, John. I'm glad you enjoyed the book. It's actually not the case that all non-African American characters speak in "standard English" in the book. I thought about this quite a bit while writing the book, and was careful to quote people as they spoke in tape recorded conversations. Some people speak more formally (particularly when being interviewed), as was the case with the "more power to you" line you mentioned above. That person just didn't say "ya" though many people would have. There are non African-American characters that speak in their own dialects (see, for example, Christoph), just as there are African American characters who speak what you referred to as "standard English" (see, for example, Dr. Pattillo). As I said in the beginning of the book, I did my best to simply quote people as they spoke.


I just wanted to say I won a copy of your book from the drawing offered here at this site, and I just finished it this morning.

It was great; I knew nothing about this subject and thought you managed to bring up so much from the story. I also really liked the last bit of the book where you explained about the current affairs of tissue and rights.

So yeah; I think you wrote a great book. I hope it brings you tons of success because it was deftly written.


I just read and loved your book! To take something that could have been academic and dry and turn it into a STORY, a real "page-turner," is quite a feat! Kudos to you!

This book would be a great candidate for the many First Year Reading Experience programs that happen in universities across the country. I will recommend it to my own large university.

Thanks for the great book!

Amazing, very readable book. But with all the fact checkers you credit, couldn't one have properly named the U.S. Public Health Service as the culprits in the Tuskegee experiments, instead of the "U.S. Department of Public Health" on page 50? One factual error in a book of non-fiction always leaves me with doubts about the veracity of the rest of the book. See for more about the Tuskegee study.

Thanks for the comment, Stu. You're right that it was the Public Health Service, but PHS was (and I believe still is) an agency within the Department of Health. So both are actually correct.

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I find this very frustrating. The PHS is in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)[1980], formerly known as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW)[1953], previously the Federal Security Agency (FSA)[1939]. Prior to that, the PHS was in the Treasury Department. There never was, nor is there now a "Department of Public Health."

The PHS began as the Marine Hospital Service (1798), later the Marine Hospital and Public Health Service, finally, just the Public Health Service (1912).

We're not entitled to our own facts.

Ok, consider this dead horse beaten. I thought you were taking issue with me calling it "The Department of Health" which is something that is standard to do (meaning a shortened version of the full name), particularly when it appears as part of a conversation in a book as this did. But I see that I called it the Department of PUBLIC Health, which is simply a typo ... a minor one, but yes, an error (one that's easy to fix in future editions, which I will do, thank you). These things happen when you make a book: In an earlier version of the manuscript, it said "Department of Health," then I later changed it to "Public Health Service" in the editing process, and clearly in straightening that out, a typo was made -- this happens occasionally, since changes at that stage in the book production process are made offsite by a typesetter based on handwritten changes, not by the author herself.

This isn't about people being "entitled to our own facts," and it certainly doesn't call the validity of the entire book into question as you said -- it's a typo, which is bound to happen in a book of this size. Obviously, if you read the endnotes of my book, you'll see that I take facts very seriously.

End of this discussion.

First I would like to thank you for writing this great book! I enjoyed reading it as much as anyother great story. It brought me into the life of Henrietta and her family. I found myself angry at times and as excited as Deborah at others. I could understand the anger that was in Zakariyya; being an abused child myself, I really wanted to kick but for him myself. I can't wait on the HBO movie to come out.

I really wish that Deborah could have lived long enough to see the finish product. Well again thank-you for openning my mind and those of others about the science world.

Very fascinating story. I have been listening to the audio while driving to and from work dailyâ¦not wanting to get out of the car. As one who works for a large national reference laboratory that specilizes in research and anatomic pathlogy I felt even more connected.
I had never heard of this story until a co worker brought in a newspaper article that feautured Henrietta. I was hooked.
Your writing made me feel as if I was there following you though the whole process. Very well done.

By Sheila Shetty (not verified) on 28 May 2010 #permalink

Thank you for telling Henrietta's story...the whole time I was reading this book I was thinking of my mother who I'm sure is alive today(1st cancer 1959)because of Henrietta's amazing contribution; for which I'll always be grateful. When I think of my mother now I think of Henrietta & her family. I was wondering if there was a way to get Henrietta Lacks nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine. I believe her impact on medicine is unmatched. Congratulations on such an important book.

By Jo'Anne Lambert (not verified) on 02 Jun 2010 #permalink

Fantastic book. Eminently well researched. But you already knew that. A lot of respected pros have heaped well-deserved praise on you.

But, I will tell you what I found very valuable to me. I lived in the South, twice, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was made into law. And I know that African-Americans were treated shamefully by the whites.

But you get explicit in the 'where-and-how' of that racism. I really do appreciate that and I applaud you for it.

B Z or Bravo Zulu (Navy-speak for "Well Done.")

This book is AMAZING. I absolutely could not put it down and went to sleep many nights much later than I should because I wanted to read just a few more pages. I sincerely hope the many companies and universities which have profited from Henrietta's cells find some way to donate to the foundation since they surely owe it to Henrietta's family to do so. I can't wait to read whatever your next book might be. Best of luck to you in your future.

By Lynn O'Donnell (not verified) on 27 Jun 2010 #permalink

Rebecca, wanted to share this review I wrote on ILHL on Facebook Bookshelf:

"More proof that well-researched, well-written non-fiction is worth more than the going market rate for a book. The shear immensity of the sources and notes in Ms. Skloot's first book tells me she exhibited a level of concentrated thought, commitment, vision and self-discipline that most of us semi-ADD-addled mere mortals could only dream of. For all that time and dedication, we should each pay her $100 to share in what she found out over the years she spent in creating this work of art. The book raises some interesting questions about who owns the tissues and fluids routinely taken from your body, as well as shines light on the amazing inequity of knowledge and awareness between those with enough education to ask questions of their medical professionals and those without enough to be so bold. The history of a seemingly simple procedure that produced immortal cells upon which so much medical progress is based is compelling enough. Add to that the tragic family history, the glimpses into the slave and tobacco trades, the evolution of medicine and the decline of towns and cities and you have all one could ask for in a balanced read. Highly recommended!"

To that I would add congrats on the plot design, the chapter timeline graphics, and the recruitment of a small army to read and fact check for you. All were done to perfection. Awesome results in this your first book!

Dear Ms Skloot:
Thank you for this expertly rendered story, weaving personal, societal, medical, and scientific issues beautifully. Complex scientific concepts must be brought to the public for thoughtful consideration. Your book does this in a powerful and effective manner. Congratulations.
As a surgeon who obtains consent for tissue sample donation, a researcher who uses HeLa and other cell lines, a member of our institutional IRB, and a journal editor interested in disclosure, I am delighted that you have brought the issues to the public. I suggest including an âethicalâ and a âscientificâ time line as an appendix to show how knowledge, thought and regulatory aspects have evolved over the decades covered in this story. Your chronologic time line at the top of each chapter is helpful, but only scratches the surface of educational opportunities.
John H. Healey, MD, FACS
Chief of Orthopaedic Surgery
Vice Chair for Education
Department of Surgery
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery
Weill Medical College of Cornell University