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Finding Henrietta Lacks
Here’s the compelling story of how a young Rolling Stone writer tracked down and published the identity of a then-anonymous cell donor, now known to millions of readers from Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Here’s the compelling story of how a young Rolling Stone writer tracked down and published the identity of a then-anonymous cell donor, now known to millions of readers from Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As Rebecca describes, back in 1976, a very young science writer was the first to locate the Lacks family and explain to them Henrietta’s remarkable role in biomedicine.
This is the story of how that happened. She was only known as “Helen Lane” (the pseudonym for Henrietta that the researchers used in public), but her apparently immortal cells had already started to earn an enormous place in science. Michael Rogers, then a staff writer for the rock and roll magazine, wanted to bring it to life by actually finding her surviving relatives and paint a portrait of “Helen” herself. It seemed like a long-shot at best, and in fact nearly proved impossible. Back in the Seventies, the biomedical community controlled information far more closely than today.
Plus, the unspoken rules of science writing at the time made printing a tissue donor’s real name ethically dubious. Ultimately, through a single slip of the tongue by a researcher, Rogers was able to find the family—as they were on the very first step of the difficult journey that Rebecca so ably chronicles in her book. This 8,000 word ebooklet describes Rogers’ efforts to find Henrietta Lacks—within the particular opportunities and challenges of journalism in the Seventies—and also includes the text of the original 1976 article. —
Michael Rogers is a novelist, technology pioneer and futurist, who most recently served as futurist-in-residence for The New York Times. He speaks to audiences worldwide and is a regular guest on radio and television. Rogers began his career as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine.
He co-founded Outside magazine and then launched Newsweek’s technology column, winning numerous journalism awards. For ten years he was vice president of The Washington Post Company’s new media division, leading both the newspaper and Newsweek into the new century. Rogers studied physics and creative writing at Stanford University and lives in New York City, where he works on ebook and television projects.