Bestselling author Rebecca Skloot spent more than ten years doggedly uncovering the truth about the life, death, and ultimate “immortality” of a poor Black tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks. Her phenomenal book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has sold nearly 3 million copies to date. Part detective story, part scientific odyssey, and part family saga, The Immortal Life raises haunting yet urgent questions about race, class, autonomy, and bioethics in America.
In The Immortal Life, Skloot tells the story of a young Black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951—and left behind an inexplicably immortal line of cells known as HeLa. Henrietta’s cells—harvested without her knowledge or consent—contributed to scientific advancements as varied as the polio vaccine, treatments for cancers and viruses, in-vitro fertilization, and the impact of space travel on human cells. The Immortal Life is also the story of Henrietta’s descendants, the Lacks family, some of whom were used in research without their consent and none of whom have ever benefited from the commercialization of HeLa cells, even though those cells have helped biotech companies make millions of dollars. It was only in August 2020, the centennial celebration of Henrietta’s birth, when that began to change. It was at that time that organizations that utilize the HeLa cells made the first historic gifts to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. The undisclosed gift from life-sciences company Abcam and a $400 starting gift from Howard Hughes Medical Institute ($100 for each cell line that lab members had created, with other gifts promised for future cell lines) are a symbolic effort to encourage other organizations to do the same.
Recognizable for its engaging, straightforward language, Skloot’s writing—both in The Immortal Life and her many feature articles for major publications—has charmed readers around the world. A magnetic speaker, she has also been lauded for making complex issues accessible to diverse audiences; at Emory University, an official described the large audience as “completely rapt.” More than 250 communities, schools, and universities have chosen The Immortal Life for their common read programs.
Skloot’s lectures have fascinated everyone from college undergraduates to medical and legal audiences seeking an expert perspective on modern bioethics. She has spoken widely at high schools, colleges, and professional organizations, including Johns Hopkins University, Morehouse School of Medicine, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, Yale University, Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIM&R), and more. She has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including The Colbert Report, CBS Sunday Morning, and NPR programs including Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation.
The Immortal Life was selected as a best book of 2010 by over 60 media outlets, including The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, the American Library Association, People, The Washington Post Book World, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Boston Globe. It spent more than four years on The New York Times bestseller list, was named one of Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, and has been translated into more than 25 languages. Skloot was named One of Five Surprising Leaders of 2010 by The Washington Post. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was also made into an Emmy-nominated HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks and Rose Byrne as Skloot.
Rebecca Skloot has written more than 200 feature articles, personal essays, book reviews, and news stories for The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, Seed, New York Magazine, Slate, Popular Science, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, including Best Food Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction. She served as co-editor of The Best American Science Writing 2011 and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW.
Rebecca Skloot has a BS in biological sciences and a MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. She is the founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without their knowledge or consent. Skloot remains in close contact with the Lacks family.
She is working on a new book about humans, animals, science, and ethics, a topic near and dear to her: Before becoming a science writer, Skloot spent more than a decade working as a veterinary technician in animal shelters, vet clinics, emergency rooms, shelters, research labs, and an animal morgue. Those experiences, and the ethical questions they prompted, are at the center of her book-in-progress, which explores the often controversial topic of animal research through a deeply personal story about our complex relationships with animals — their roles in our lives, and in science — and the humans who battle over their fates, and as a result, our own.
For more information about the Lacks family and where they are today, please visit lacksfamily.com.
To learn more about the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, please visit henriettalacksfoundation.org.Download Rebecca Skloot's press kit here.