August 13, 2010 In 1951, a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins took cells from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished Baltimore woman who subsequently died of cancer. It was an age that predated any notion of informed consent, and neither Henrietta nor any member of her family gave permission for doctors to perform research on her tissue sample, which ultimately yielded the first immortal cell line in human history and became the basis for a multibillion-dollar research industry. Despite being pivotal in the development of the polio vaccine—as well as treatments for cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease—HeLa cells, as they are known in medicine, did not enrich the family Henrietta left behind in any way.
On August 11, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation awarded its first set of grants —college scholarships covering full tuition and books, beginning this fall—to five descendants of Henrietta Lacks, as well as emergency aid to one of Henrietta’s children. Skloot’s straightforward response to posting this news: “Joy.”
This has been a big week for Skloot in more ways than one: on August 10, Skloot learned that she had been awarded the 2010 Heartland Prize for nonfiction by The Chicago Tribune. Skloot, who moved to the Chicago area from Memphis just last month, was still unpacking boxes when she got the call: “It felt like a perfect welcome to Chicago,” she told the Tribune.