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SMC plans speaking series

Observer Staff Report | Monday, December 3, 2012

With a pair of noteworthy speakers slated to visit Saint Mary’s in February, the College has announced plans for the speaking series in order to give students and other interested groups time to read the book in question, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” director of media relations Gwen O’Brien said in a Nov. 13 press release from the College.

“We have begun to promote these speaking engagements a few months ahead of time to give the Michiana community plenty of time to read the book,” O’Brien said. “High school and college students or teachers, for instance, may have more time to read over winter breaks. The book could also be a good choice for area book clubs and it’s an excellent holiday gift idea.”

Rebecca Skloot, author of the New York Times bestseller, will be speaking at the College on Feb. 27.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a nonfiction book about an impoverished African-American tobacco farmer who had cancer cells removed from her body without her knowledge or consent in 1951. These rapidly reproducing cells became instrumental in gene mapping, the development of the polio vaccine and other modern medical breakthroughs.

The book’s title refers to Henrietta’s cells being the first “immortal” human cells – capable of indefinite growth – grown in a laboratory. Despite the massive impact of the cells in the medical field, Lacks’ name and story remain largely unknown. Decades later, her family cannot afford to pay their own health insurance, according to the release.

Henrietta’s son, David Lacks, will visit campus Feb. 12 for a question-and-answer session. Neither David nor his siblings knew about their mother’s cells and their success in medicine until the 1970s, the release stated.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is also this year’s selection for “One Book, One Saint Mary’s,” an annual community reading project organized and hosted by the Alumnae Association. The book selection is usually a title students are reading in courses at the College.

Stephanie Steward-Bridges, a member of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, said in the release bringing David Lacks to campus would offer an opportunity to provide educational programming while drawing attention to an ignored injustice.

“We thought that it was important to incorporate the family into campus programming because they received little to no compensation for the use of their mother’s genes and to leave them out would perpetuate that injustice,” she said.

Skloot will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27 in O’Laughlin Auditorium. David Lacks’ speech will be at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 12 in Carroll Auditorium.