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Henrietta Lacks and Public Health

November 07, 2011 - by Linda

Today, Adelphi University introduced the Center for Health Innovation, which sets out a bold mission: to be the primary resource in the region for innovative, evidence-based responses to improving healthcare, healthcare systems, and public health.

Our reading of Rebecca Skloot's book connects to the discussion we want to foster about health through our new Center for Health Innovation.

Dr. Scott's reading of the book made him ponder several health-related questions including this one:

  • How does the fact that public health policies have changed over time affect the historical presentation and analysis of the story?  In what ways does the story of Henrietta Lacks influence your thinking about the current debate about health care and “Obamacare”?

  • What do you think of Skloot's work from a public health perspective? What can Adelphi do to keep the conversation going about the issues raised in the book?

 Don't forget to join us on Wednesday at the President's Reading Circle!


Join Dr. Scott for the President's Reading Circle

November 04, 2011 - by Linda

The campus conversation about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks continues on Wednesday, November 9 at 1:00 p.m. in the Thomas Dixon Lovely Ballroom of the Ruth S. Harley University Center. Students, faculty, administration, and staff are welcome to discuss Rebecca Skloot's book, which deals with issues of medical consent, race and class. Dr. Scott's first discussion drew over 30 community members, who share their opinions and raised provocative questions.

We hope you'll join the conversation on Wednesday, and we'd like to leave you with a question Dr. Scott considered when reading Skloot's work.

  • Discuss Rebecca Skloot’s approach to writing this biography-history-examination of a major public health issue, and how her approach helped her fulfill her mission or caused her to fall short.

Check this blog in the days leading up to Wednesday for more questions and considerations.

To RSVP for Wednesday, please email publicaffairs@adelphi.edu

On Context (and the American South)

September 27, 2011 - by Bradley

I'm a New Orleans native who's spent most of my life somewhere between New Orleans, Louisiana and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, two hours north of NOLA. When I got to New York and began to establish social circles in the city and at Adelphi, it didn't take long for me to become known as a Southerner. It's not because I speak with anything recognizable as a Southern accent--I don't, because I'm from New Orleans, and people from New Orleans don't speak like Southerners--or because I am in any way recognizable to me stereotypically Southern. It's just a matter of geography, and is, in hindsight, funny: the other day during a meeting with clients for work, outside Jackson, Mississippi, one of those with whom we were meeting told me I somehow looked like someone who'd be from New York. 

Go figure. 

This actually speaks to a larger trend in the geographic South: New Orleanians hail from a place that is located in the South but which is absolutely not of the South. I am to some extent a foreigner in any other part of the region. I can't even do a passable Mississippi drawl. 

All of this is to say that, though I am not necessarily really a Southerner, according to some of my Mississippi friends, because no New Orleanian can ever be one, they say, the South is still a place I've called home for many years of my life, and so is a place that has had an impact on my interpersonal relationships, my intellectual conclusions, my decisions, and perhaps most importantly, others' perceptions of me. If somebody ever bothers to analyze my writing career, they're going to, at some point, do so in the context of my status as a "Southern" writer. In fact, during my thesis colloquium class at Adelphi, my professor even commented on some of my work as "Southern" fiction. 

Throughout the beginning of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot's placing Henrietta into context. She's not doing so just because it's an interesting story, but because the reality of Henrietta's background as a poor African-American girl from Virginia determines so much about her future. Skloot could have simply delved into the fascinating science, started on a timeline point closer to when Henrietta becomes HeLa, but she very purposefully gives us much of Henrietta's life story, because we have to know it, or we can't properly understand anything that follows. 

It's not, of course, a particularly long detour. But it's interesting that Skloot chooses to intersperse--if you will--the early life of HeLa with the early life of Henrietta. In a way, we get the genesis of the woman twice, something Skloot isn't shy about making clear. "The Birth of HeLa" is her name for her fourth chapter, which follows a simple yet particularly well-done chapter-closing line: "They were sure Henrietta's cells would die just like all the others." I wonder if they were in fact sure of this--or if it's something that wouldn't have even really crossed their minds, since the concept of her cellsnot dying would be something so far beyond imagination that it would just not occur to them. 

The context into which Henrietta fits is critically important considering just how HeLa is really born. When her cancer cells simply multiply, growing rapidly, doubling and requiring more and more vials to contain them, no one even seems to think she needs to know. Nobody stops to inform the poor black woman or get her permission to share her own genetic material when one doctors asks another if he can "get some" of it. If the context had been different, if Henrietta had been born a well-off white person from some prosperous community, would things have progressed this way? 

It's probably not just my gut instinct answering "No."


September 14, 2011 - by Bradley

A couple months ago I went on a Wikipedia diving expedition. It's something I do from time to time when I'm craving writerly inspiration or experience a kind of thirst for random fascinating knowledge that I've felt since I can remember. When I was little these expeditions would lead me to the collection of 1970s-era encyclopedias—not the Britannica; one of those off-brands—on our family bookshelves. Later, those encyclopedias were replaced by a newer set, a 1999 set, and all I recall of those was that they were American, not Britannic, and that over a period of a few years I read them all completely. With the advent of what I'm beginning to think of as post-contemporary information technology—the social systems of the Internet: Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, Foursquare, all the rest—these little info binges took on some new characteristics. One of the most important of these is that Wikipedia entries inevitably contain numerous links to other entries, and so to more information. Depending on which links you click as you peruse individual articles, the nature of your expedition can change radically as you dive deeper into the communal knowledge well. That late night a few months ago, I started with some entry I do not remember at all, waded through dozens of others, and ended with something I've remembered since: the page about Henrietta Lacks. 

You know those moments when coincidence feels like synchronicity? When, having never seen a particular make of car before, you buy one and immediately see half a dozen? This became one of those moments. Reading about Henrietta Lacks, entranced by the story of both her life and her unique post-death immortality, under "media" I came upon a link to Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, clicked it, read what was there, and decided this was a work I absolutely had to acquire and read. But, thanks to a long and ever-growing personal reading queue, and also the business of finding that all-important pay-the-bills kind of work following my graduation from Adelphi this past May, Ms. Skloot's book went into mental storage until the day I was told that it was going to be the subject of the Adelphi Community Reads blog I had previously agreed to maintain. Like I said: Synchronicity. Now I have reason to not only bump The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the top of my queue, but to discuss it with others and write about it as well. 

Last week, on my personal blog I, responding to a rant about analyzing literature, wrote that those doing the ranting were making the usual error of assuming that all literary analysis is designed to ascertain some hidden meaning buried in a text by the text's author. This, of course, is not the case: the intent or meaning of a writer is not the only interest of the close reader, because themes and meanings can be derived from a text whether the writer meant to put them there or not. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, of course, we aren't dealing with a work of fiction or poetry but rather a nonfiction account of what is among the most unique stories I've heard. There's certainly no hidden meaning behind Skloot's text, and probably no symbolism to decode. That doesn't mean there aren't relevant themes here, messages in the text about which we'll be talking. Quite the contrary: we're dealing with a kind of immortality here, and has anything other than love inspired more stories than, in one form or another, humanity's longing for immortality? Along with the many overt issues here—say, the rights claimed by corporations and governments over the living genetic material of real people, one of the most invasive acts I can imagine, or the very real factor race played in how events transpired—there is this underlying issue, this idea of Henrietta Lacks being the only human to attain living, physical immortality, and it's into this issue that I think we'll be especially delving. Because Henrietta—HeLa—was/is a person. 

I'm struck by the haunting power of Ms. Skloot's introductory paragraph—the one in her prologue, "The Woman in the Photograph"—because in it there is an image of an everyday young woman, the sort of person we all know, or maybe the sort of person we are. "I've tried to imagine how she'd feel," Ms. Skloot writes, "knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization." Think about those words. Really focus on this very beginning of the book. When you're as young as I was when I'd dive into those encyclopedias you're not often able to truly appreciate the sheer scale of big things, because when you're small, small things can seem enormous and truly big things are beyond comprehension. The lake in our former back yard in Slidell, Louisiana, when I was very young, seemed huge. Today, on those rare occasions that I see the same lake, it seems tiny, a glorified puddle. But now I can appreciate the vastness of an ocean, the way a 15th Century sailor might have felt when confronting the Atlantic, in ways I never could then. My new ability to appreciate the epic, or specifically the effect of the epic on the tiny human, means that I can feel true awe when I read this prologue and learn that one might argue Henrietta Lacks is the most important person in recent world history. 

"In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall," Ms. Skloot writes. But today, in her immortality, she can "wrap around the Earth at least three times." 

I look forward to experiencing this incredible story with you all.

About the Blog

Read is a collaboratively authored blog in support of AU Community Reads initiative, which has fostered campus-wide discussion about Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

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The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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