If you haven't yet heard of Rebecca Skloot's nonfiction masterpiece "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," just wait a minute. Along with winning a wheelbarrow full of awards, the bestselling book, about a poor black tobacco farmer whose taken-without-her-knowledge cells became a skeleton key for modern medicine, was recently optioned by Oprah for an HBO film. And where the Great O goes, millions more follow (usually while clad in pashminas).
Oprah isn't the only one hypnotized by the story of HeLa--the sing-songy shorthand used to describe Lacks' cells, which, because of their astounding ability to reproduce (hence, "immortal"), have helped do everything from develop the polio vaccine to make possible in vitro fertilization. The five members of the Evergreen, Washington (Clark County), school board were similarly mesmerized. As a result, the first institution ever named for the newly discovered scientific pioneer will now be a short drive away from Seattle.
On Wednesday, the board voted unanimously to name its new magnet school the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School, even though Lacks--born in a tiny town in Virginia and deceased at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where the cells were taken--has no connection to the Pacific Northwest. When it opens in the fall of 2013, you can safely assume that no one will call it that ever again, as "HeLa High" is just too easy and fun not to say.
Board member Michael Parsons, a retired Army lifer, says that the naming decision was easy. (The other alternatives were Mother Joseph Health and Bioscience Academy, after the woman who opened the first hospital in the northwest--St. Joseph's in Vancouver in 1858--and the bland Health and Bioscience Academy of Southwest Washington.) Parsons says that after hearing that a committee of students, parents, and faculty had recommended Henrietta Lacks High, he and least one other member of the board went out and bought Skloot's book, which he says he loved, even if it was "a little emotional" compared with the textbooks he normally reads.
"I think it's an important story for a number of reasons," he says. "Not just because of the significance of the cells themselves. But also as a reminder of ethics and morality in research with regards to the health sciences."
Attempts to reach Skloot for comment have thus far been unsuccessful. In a Tweet, she says she's out of the country with spotty internet and phone access. But we'll keep trying because, well, beautiful and brilliant? Yeah, we'll wait around for that.
As a bonus, below you'll find the trailer for Skloot's book. Go. Read it. NOW.