Skip to content

Campus visit an emotional one for author Rebecca Skloot

March 9, 2010
Arrow Buff


Readers around the country have made Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks an instant bestseller. The New York Times calls the nonfiction work  “a thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics, and crippling poverty.”

During a February 24 reading on campus, Skloot let a Gallaudet audience judge for themselves. During her visit, the author presented the story of the late Henrietta Lacks, who in the 1950s unknowingly gave cells from her cancerous tumor to scientific researchers, from a number of angles. Lacks’s hardy “HeLa” cells, she said, “were one of the most important things to happen to medicine in the last 100 years.” The tragic and fascinating story shows how even this fact did not help Lacks’s family crawl out of poverty, attain better education, or even obtain access to affordable health care. For years, they received no credit or compensation.

Aside from telling the story of these famous cells and the Lacks family, the book follows a daughter’s journey toward understanding her mother’s contribution to modern science, and an author’s investigation into questions that bothered her from the age of 16.

In addition, the book shows the fate of black deaf children during the Jim Crow era. “I think it’s important to recognize this is also part of our community story,” said Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, who introduced the author.

The visit to campus became emotional for Skloot. She discovered that Gallaudet once housed a school for black deaf students in the 1950s, and a few years later an integrated school. Lacks’s deaf and hard of hearing children were of school age and lived in Baltimore during that period, but the family was never aware that such a school existed. Forced through public schools that never recognized they were deaf, let alone accommodated their needs, the children barely learned to read and write. Gallaudet “is such an important place,” Skloot said, “and you’re all very fortunate to have it.”

Several faculty members felt fortunate to have the author visit when she did, seeing a direct connection between the book’s topics and their class work this semester. Students in the Department of Philosophy and Religion’s “Bioethics and the Deaf Community” are discussing issues raised by Skloot, as are students taking the GSR 240: “Research Ethics in the Social Sciences,” a joint offering by Philosophy and Religion and the Sociology Department. The GSR 230: “Biodiversity and Bioethics” will be discussing this issue in connection with the idea of intellectual property and research ethics.

The reading also proved helpful for EDF 812: “Qualitative Methods,” where doctoral students were scheduled to have a guest lecture on  that evening on the standards for research proposals. Gallaudet’s Institutional Review Board requires that researchers obtain “informed consent” in writing from participants–something Henrietta Lacks’s attending doctors neglected to do.

In addition, the Biology Department uses HeLa cells in its labs. Thanks to the author visit and Skloot’s book, students can now read about the woman–and the story–behind the specimens.

(Rebecca Skloot’s talk was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and Religion, the Graduate School, and the Schaefer Distinguished Lecturer Program, which is supported by the William H. and Ruth Crane Schaefer Endowment. Arrangements for Skloot’s appearance were made through Greater Talent Network, Inc. in New York.)

–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

9 March 2010


Recent Posts

Roberto E. Wirth, E-’74 & H-’09, passed away on June 5 in Rome, Italy. Mr. Wirth was owner and managing director of the Hotel Hassler in Rome, one of the most prestigious family-owned hotels in the world, and owned several other hotels and resorts throughout Italy. He was a strong advocate for deaf people in...

Alumnus Timel Benton has signed a contract with the Bay Area Panthers of the Indoor Football League (IFL). Benton, who graduated last month, is the first Gallaudet Bison to sign a professional football contract since Tony Tatum signed on with the Utah Blaze in the now-disbanded Arena Football League (AFL) in May 2013. Benton was...

James Caverly, ’11, who plays Theo Dimas in Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, will play Professor Harold Hill in the Olney Theatre Center’s summer production of Meredith Willson’s Tony-winning musical The Music Man, which opens tonight and runs through July 23. The show’s official opening is on Thursday, June 23. Sandra Mae Frank, ’13,...

About the Author

Gallaudet University

Published Articles: 849

Recent Posts
Deaf hotelier Roberto Wirth passes away
Alumnus Timel Benton to play professional football
Alumni, faculty featured in The Music Man at Olney Theatre Center
Related Categories
Media Inquiries

For any other media inquiry, please contact:

No media contact found!

Stay up to date on all the Gallaudet happenings, both stories and initiatives we are doing with our Signing community!​

Admissions Requirements

Hearing Undergraduate