Unlike, say, John Mayer, Rebecca Skloot’s new book reopens racial wounds for the right reasons. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks examines a woman who was hardly immortal: a poor, black tobacco farmer who died from cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. But a line of her cells—removed and cultured without her permission while she still lived—were the first to self-reproduce. Known to generations of scientists as HeLa, the cells multiplied dramatically and played a role in many of the most important medical advances of the 20th century, from the polio vaccine to chemotherapy and gene mapping. Undoubtedly, Lacks’ cells saved millions of lives, and they also made millions for the companies that sold them. Members of Lacks’ family still live in Baltimore. They don’t have health insurance.

REBECCA SKLOOT SPEAKS AT 1 P.M. AT POLITICS AND PROSE, 5015 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. FREE. (202) 364-1919.

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