Metamorphosis

Warning: rare self-indulgent post.

Blogging has been and will be light over the next few days while we are packing up things around here to move to our next, more permanent home.

In the meantime, you may have noticed here and on Twitter that part of my big news is that I will begin writing under my PharmMom-given name.

My dilemma has been that I have two Twitter accounts. @AbelPharmboy has been the one I use for all blog-related stuff as well as any other gems of my mind that can fit into 140 characters.  Thanks to you, I have 1,600 followers at that account. However, I also have a real name Twitter account that I used for my now-fledgling-and-almost-nonexistent music career and local banter with folks in the Durham-Chapel Hill area. That one only had 200 followers until I began announcing my metamorphosis.

With the pending blog move and melding of my IRL and online identities, one of my mentors, Twitter follower, writer, editor, and Johns Hopkins journalism professor, Mary Knudson, asked what I was going to do regarding the two avatars I use for each Twitter account.

One of my dear friends was enthusiastic about me coming up with a new avatar for the real name account but I’ve been worried about losing old followers who might not recognize the real name avatar.

But coming to the rescue from across the pond is my devoted reader and neuropharmacology enthusiast, Synchronium – world-famous for showing not one but both nipples in the British press.

Here is my metamorphosis:

Follow me now @davidkroll on Twitter.

More news on our move as it becomes available.

The Henrietta Lacks Foundation awards first assistance grants to HeLa descendants

Yesterday, author Rebecca Skloot made the following announcement at her website:

Today, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation awarded its first ever grants thanks to donations from Rebecca Skloot, and many readers. The first awards cover full tuition and books for five descendants of Henrietta Lacks starting fall semester 2010, as well as an emergency grant for one of Henrietta Lacks’s sons. More information about the inaugural Henrietta Lacks Foundation grants coming soon. For more information on the foundation, or to make a donation, click here.

As some readers know, I have been a big fan of Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I have been the beneficiary of the cervical carcinoma cell line established in 1951 from the Ms. Lacks’s tumor.

When Rebecca announced last year that she was to establish a foundation to funnel profits and donations to assist the Lacks family, one of her primary goals when embarking on this project more than ten years ago, she also asked me to serve on the board of the Foundation.

I’ll have more to say about this process when a formal press release is made. But for the time being, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to do my part to honor the memory of Henrietta Lacks and assist her descendants.

Congratulations to Anton Zuiker on 10 years of blogging!

Anton Zuiker, author of the mistersugar blog, posted Friday on the occasion of his 10th anniversary of blogging.

Here was my comment:

Congratulations, Anton! Your love for a good story and selfless innovative thinking about community infected me five years ago and I consider myself extremely enriched by having you in my real and online life.

This history is beautiful and heartfelt – I am certain that Frank the Beachcomber was and is proud of what you’ve done here and what you’ve become elsewhere. Not just Anton The Writer, but Anton the father, husband, friend, and community leader. Even if you simply launched ScienceOnline, your international impact would be something to be proud of for anyone’s lifetime.

Heartiest congratulations, my friend!

Anton wrote a lovely post detailing his path over the last ten years of an effort spurred by his wish to honor the lifelong writing and storytelling of his dying grandfather. Very much like his compatriot and co-founder of the science communications unconference now known as ScienceOnline, Anton had a vision that the online community can also be a vehicle to improving one’s local, IRL community.

Four months after I started blogging, I had the chance to meet Anton and Bora (and Ayse and Jackson Fox) at a BlogTogether meetup in Chapel Hill. A door had been opened to me that has brought these and other remarkable people into my life. I never blogged about it because it was at a time when I was fiercely protective of my identity and made no reference to my IRL existence. It’s been a gift to live in the same community with these fine folks.

And if you’re wondering about the origin of “mistersugar” and the pig avatar, go to Anton’s “About” page. “Mistersugar” is easy to figure out but I could never have guessed what was up with the pig.

Go on over and congratulate Anton on a decade of great things.

Bora leaves ScienceBlogs with superb history and analysis of science blogging

With great sadness, I announce that my colleague, Bora Zivkovic (aka Coturnix), is departing from ScienceBlogs.
However, his long-awaited analysis of the Pepsigate #sbfail episode is superb and he provides an unparalleled history of science blogging, its relationship with the legacy media, and his views of the future. He ends on an optimistic note, so I hope that his leaving the network is a GoodThing for both him and his family.
Bora has been and will continue to be a great blog mentor. I am most fortunate to know him in real life as well.
I can’t help thinking that this is another nail in the ScienceBlogs coffin. I hope I am proven wrong.

Brendan Koerner in Wired how, why, and if Alcoholics Anonymous works

The last two days (here and here), you lovely commenters and I have been bantering about legacy media’s reluctance to use the original literature citation in print or online coverage of science, medicine, and health stories. The discussion has drawn input from working writers as well as scientists and bloggers and I also draw your attention to the comments at the impetus for these posts over at The White Coat Underground with PalMD.
But remember, my dear ink- and pixel-stained friends, I am also a graduate advisory board member and instructor in a science and medical journalism program at a major state university. So, I hope those new to the blog understand that my comments and objections arose from my concerns and love for journalism and journalists.
To further emphasize my admiration for superb sci/med/health writing, I wish today to add another writer to my growing blog category of “Journalists, Awesome.”
Via my drug abuse research colleague, DrugMonkey, my attention was drawn to a new Wired magazine article by Brendan I. Koerner entitled, Secret of AA: After 75 Years, We Don’t Know How It Works.
I strongly recommend this long-form article for anyone in the field of substance abuse and dependence research, psychology and general clinical research, students of excellent science writing, alcoholics and their family members, and anyone who thinks that good science writing no longer exists.
I don’t want to influence your views any further other than to say that since poured my first whiskey and water for my grandmother when I was around 7, I’ve had a longstanding interest in why Alcoholics Anonymous helps so many alcohol-dependent folks kick the disease for decades while others trying the approach continue to crash and burn or otherwise abhor its very tenets, especially the “Higher Power” focus. The reader comments there also reflect this bipolar view of the unorganized organization.
Regular readers will also recall that PharmDad died of alcoholism at age 58 after two rounds of inpatient rehab at a nationally-renowned facility – he despised AA even though we had been ardent churchgoers when I was a kid.

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Catherine Clabby covers Frank Stasio (WUNC-FM’s The State of Things) for Durham Magazine

Homer alert.
The title pretty much covers three of some of my favorite things about living in Durham, NC. From the Pharmboy mailbox and Durham Magazine website:

Catherine Clabby – former reporter extraordinaire for The News & Observer, current editor extraordinaire for American Scientist magazine and a long-time Durhamite extraordinaire – spent hours finding out why The State of Things host Frank Stasio has fallen head-over-heels for Durham. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help us all appreciate how good we have it. Frank’s doing that in a big way, both through his work at NPR and in his day-to-day life. Good on you, Frank and Catherine.

stasio2.jpgThe focus of the article in the magazine extraordinaire, Durham Magazine, is Frank Stasio, host and interviewer extraordinaire of his noontime show, The State of Things, on our NPR affiliate, WUNC-FM, and the statewide North Carolina Public Radio network. Like many of us, Frank is a transplant (from DC in the case of his family) but has seized upon his new home with all the gusto of a Chamber of Commerce booster. I have learned more from Frank about music, writers, community, health, recycling, and hog farms than from any other venue in the state. The description of his show is:

The State of Things is a live program hosted by Frank Stasio devoted to bringing the issues, personalities, and places of North Carolina to our listeners. We present the Tar Heel experience through sound, story, discussion, commentary and listener participation through calls.

I should also mention Frank’s unsung hero, producer Katy Barron, with whom I had the pleasure of working during last year’s U2 academic conference and a recent book author tour. Garnering a photo from a studio glass reflection in the article, Katy is the ethereal presence of The State of Things, scheduling talent, listening to their music or reading their books in advance, and helping Frank stay on top of everything. Katy is the head of the production staff to which Frank deflects any compliment.
They run a civilized operation from one of the most comfortable radio stations I’ve ever sat in, offering glasses of hot tea to guests from their central location in the American Tobacco Campus, Durham’s example of warehouse revitalization.

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Boy howdy! We’ve hooked Superbug’s Maryn McKenna!

On the heels of the recruitment of Deborah Blum to ScienceBlogs, I am happy to welcome journalist Maryn McKenna to our neck of the ether.
Her inaugural post can be read here.
superbug-cover.jpgMcKenna’s blog is called Superbug, reflecting the title of her most recent book, SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, and her general interests in infectious diseases and food safety. Her 2004 book, BEATING BACK THE DEVIL: On The Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), named among Top Science Books of 2004 by Amazon.com and an “Outstanding Academic Title” by the American Library Association.
More details from her biography indicate that ScienceBlogs has secured a remarkable and experienced writer:

As a newspaper reporter, she worked for 11 years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was the only journalist assigned to full-time coverage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She reported from the Indian Ocean tsunami and from Hurricane Katrina, as well as from Southeast Asia, India, Africa and the Arctic, and embedded with CDC teams on Capitol Hill during the 2001 anthrax attacks and with a World Health Organization polio-eradication team in India.
Previously, she worked for the Boston Herald, where stories she co-wrote on illnesses among veterans of the first Persian Gulf War led to the first Congressional hearings on Gulf War Syndrome, and at the Cincinnati Enquirer, where her stories on the association between local cancer clusters and contamination escaping a federal nuclear weapons plant contributed to a successful nuclear-harm lawsuit by residents.
Maryn has been an Ochberg Fellow of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University; a Media Fellow with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She has also served short fellowships at Harvard Medical School and the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland. In 2006, she was an inaugural Health Journalism Fellow of the East-West Center in Honolulu and is now an Associate of the Center and teaches other journalists in its programs in Asia.
She is a cum laude graduate of Georgetown University, has a master’s degree with highest honors from Northwestern University, and is the recipient of numerous journalism awards.

McKenna is clearly not your ordinary writer.
McKenna Manhattan Bar Leadville.jpgBut, of course, I cannot let her welcome message go without some levity. My eye was captured by a photo on McKenna’s website with her in front of The Manhattan Bar in Leadville, Colorado, generally considered the highest, continually-occupied municipality in the continental United States. Their Facebook page is here.
Situated on US Highway 24 that becomes Harrison Street in Leadville, The Manhattan Bar is just across from the famed Delaware Hotel in this boomtown established by the Silver Rush of the late 1870s and 1880s that then collapsed when the silver standard backing US currency was repealed in 1893.
If you’ve driven from Denver to any scientific conferences in Aspen, hiked Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, ran or biked any Leadville race, or taken your lab for whitewater rafting down the headwaters of the Arkansas River, chances are that you have driven past The Manhattan Bar.
Gotta respect a talented writer who acknowledges with reverence one of Colorado’s greatest treasures.
Welcome, Ms. McKenna!
And, as always, you can continue to follow Maryn on Twitter @marynmck
Photo credit: Shamelessly taken from McKenna’s website entirely without her permission.

What does it take to knock off K2 Spice readership?

Just the other day, I wrote about how DrugMonkey and I have experienced unprecedented and sustained blog traffic for posts we wrote in February on K2 Spice, one of a couple of marijuana-like “incense” products still sold legally in the United States.
Every morning, I dial up my SiteMeter blog statistics and take a look at what posts readers first land upon when coming to visit the humble world headquarters of Terra Sigillata.
Last week, 2,700 to 2,800 of the 4,000 most recent hits were landing on our February K2 Spice post. (You will also note below the sad state of my readership in that posts on Stiff Nights erectile dysfunction supplement and Horny Goat Weed products are the next most popular direct hits.)
Finally, one post has knocked it out of the top spot after nearly four months:
Monday’s post about the memorial unveiling of the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks this past weekend.
Henrietta Lacks knocks off K2 Spice.jpg
I have been completely overwhelmed by the interest in this story. This widespread attention would not be possible without the Facebook and blog referrals by author Rebecca Skloot, The New York Times Science page, and the enthusiastic Twitter referrals by other writers who I respect greatly such as David Dobbs, Sara Goforth, Mike Rosenwald, T. DeLene Beeland, Ted Winstead, scribbler50, Eric Ferreri, – as well as the dozens of you sci/med bloggers and folks from other walks of life who found this post worthy of recommending to your friends.
Please accept my apologies if you were not mentioned by name – I don’t have Bora Zivkovic’s flair for aggregating and linking to every referral but you have my gratitude for further popularizing the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family.
And for those of you so inclined, here are images of the memorial program that weren’t included in the last post:

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Marking the magnificent memory of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks gravestone 05.30.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
In addition to my own photos herein, Tom McLaughlin posted a nice slide show of the day at his South Boston News & Record.


Despite two trees that snapped and fell in my driveway within six feet of my car in an impressive thunderstorm Friday evening, I drove on Saturday morning to Clover, Virginia, for the dedication of a gravestone that finally marks the final resting place of Henrietta Lacks, a concrete honor, if you will, to recognize the source of one of the most valuable medical tools of the 20th century and today.

For those who are not regular readers, Henrietta Lacks was a rural tobacco farmer, mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend from southern Virginia who developed an unusually aggressive case of cervical cancer while living in Baltimore in 1951. While being treated at Johns Hopkins University, surgeons excised pieces of her tumor in an ongoing effort by the laboratory of Dr. George Gey to establish a continuously growing human tumor cell line in culture, a feat that had only been previously accomplished with mouse cells. Ms. Lacks’s cells are today known by the name, HeLa (hee-luh), and have been used from the fifties in testing the effectiveness of the original Salk polio vaccine up through today providing the basis for the new cervical cancer vaccines. I would not be overstating the case to say that most biomedical scientists have at one time or another worked with HeLa cells.
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 250px.jpgHowever, the identity of Henrietta Lacks as the unknowing donor of the cells that gave rise to so many medical discoveries – a poor Black woman, mind you – as well as the story of her family and their travails at the hand of the medical establishment had largely gone untold until the 1980s, even among scientists themselves.

But with the help of the family – especially Henrietta’s late daughter, Deborah – scientists, historians, and her own tenacious investigative skills, journalist and author Rebecca Skloot spent the last ten years researching and gorgeously crafting a book on the HeLa story that has become this year’s best-selling non-fiction gem, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. If you have not yet read the book, you are missing out on what Dwight Garner of The New York Times called, “one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”

A black woman, a white boy, and a PhD
My own interest in the story extends beyond my general fascination with the history of science and medicine. It is far more personal.

As I wrote in November on the 20th anniversary of my PhD dissertation defense, HeLa cells were the primary experimental system for my study of the anticancer drug target, DNA topoisomerase IIα. Moreover, HeLa cells were also the source of genomic DNA I needed to understand the enzyme’s regulation when I started my own laboratory in 1992. They ended up providing the topic of the first published paper from my independent group: me, my first PhD student, and first technician.

So when I learned that from the South Boston (VA) News & Record that the Lacks family had planned a memorial dedication service for Ms. Lacks’s headstone, I just had to attend.

The headstone was provided by a Morehouse School of Medicine donation from Dr. Roland Pattillo and his wife, Pat. Dr. Pattillo is an ob/gyn physician-scientist at the Morehouse School of Medicine who has largely been the medical guardian of the Lacks family and who provided the entré to Ms. Skloot after she convinced him of her sincerity in telling the story of the family and their matriarch. Pattillo is also himself a notable scientist of historic stature and a living connection to Dr. George Gey. Among his own four decades of accomplishments, Dr. Pattillo worked at Hopkins with Gey in the sixties on the hormonal aspects of neuroendocrine tumors and, as detailed in a 1968 Science paper, established the BeWo choriocarcinoma cell line, the first immortalized line to produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). hCG is the hormone produced by the placenta that is detected in clinical and home pregnancy tests.
Kroll Pattillo 05.29.10 002 copyright David J Kroll.jpgTo the right is Dr. Pattillo at the gravesite with an unnamed science blogger showing off his 20-year-old dissertation. To the right are two Lacks family members sharing addresses on top of Skloot’s book. You’ll note that the gravestone is also in the shape of a book, representing the many stories that have come from the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

The service began at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover, the church where Henrietta had been a member since 1932. My intention had been just to drive up and quietly pay my respects, maybe even get a photo of my dissertation at Henrietta’s gravesite. Such intentions were derailed by one of the nice usherette ambassadors at St Matthew who asked if I was a dignitary (no) but then insisted that I sit with the press and go have a word with the pastor, Reverend Alfred Chandler.

Reverend Chandler then asked that I speak to the standing room-only congregation that included dozens of Lacks family members about how my personal and professional life had been touched by the woman from Clover. Time was set aside for friends and family to share such brief reflections.

Just as an aside: I’ve now lived in the South for a third of my life. For the last ten years I’ve lived in a town with an equal 45% African-American and White population and am a prof at a historically-Black university. It never ceases to amaze me how warmly welcoming the Black community has been to me, everywhere from Virginia to Florida, and in a manner that belies the converse treatment of the community for centuries. In fact, if I could join a Black congregation, I’d probably still be going church.

I was beaming when I learned that the first scripture reading was the famous Ecclesiastes passage (3:1-8) upon which Pete Seeger wrote Turn! Turn! Turn! (The song was made popular by The Byrds in 1965 and discussed on this blog, with a Byrds reunion performance, here.). In the context of the other speakers, it was clear that this day was one to heal, build up, laugh, dance, and, most certainly, a time to embrace – I haven’t been hugged so much since my last visit with my large family from New Jersey.
Kimberley Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgOpening words on behalf of the Lacks family were offered by Kimberley Lacks, daughter of Sonny Lacks, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks. Kimberley stressed a major point that Skloot’s book did so extraordinarily well: for us to remember that her grandmother was a real woman who worked in the fields, cooked, danced, and wanted the world for her children like any other parent.

Kimberley then expressed the families gratitude for those who did just that, first and foremost thanking Rebecca Skloot for her ten-year journey with the family and scientists worldwide to bring the Henrietta Lacks story to the attention of all people, not just us in science and medicine.

Then, Kimberley said something I want all writers to know:

“Thanks to the media for bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks to the world.”

I joked with the writers and TV folks there as to when the last time was that they were expressly thanked for their work. But remember this, my journalism friends: you do make a difference. Because of this essential role you play in society, we just have to figure how to make the profession more financially viable for as many of you as possible in the new media landscape.

I had the distinct pleasure of being seated next to Attorney William Bryant Claiborne and his wife. Attorney Claiborne is a proud graduate of Virginia State University, a superb HBCU in Petersburg, and then earned a law degree at the University of Virginia. His colleagues thought he was out of his mind to come back to his rural home to practice but he reminded me that his home folk need legal services just as badly as those in Richmond and DC. Mr. Claiborne certainly walks that talk – also serving on the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. In this capacity, he presented the Lacks family (below) with a resolution honoring Henrietta Lacks, saying “we are so proud she lies in our county.”
Claiborne Halifax Co resolution 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
A rare experience for a scientist
While anxiously reflecting on the comments I was about to give, I recalled the fact that I felt embarrassed that my dissertation included nothing more about HeLa cells than the paragraph excerpted in this post, and certainly nothing about the woman from whom the cells were derived. Twenty years later, this is an even more glaring omission. So, I used the opportunity to thank the family for the gift of their matriarch. While I couldn’t change the past treatment of the family, I can play a part in moving forward and was therefore honored to be asked by Rebecca Skloot to serve with Dr. Pattillo on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to bring scholarship support to today’s young descendants. (Rebecca is donating a portion of book proceeds to the Foundation.)

And I didn’t even think about this until I was standing before the congregation – I told the family that I would be honored for them to sign my dissertation because this PhD work was as much theirs as mine.

I also had a few other things to say regarding the impact of HeLa cells on me personally and professionally and on other scientists and physicians around the world and how literally world-famous Henrietta Lacks is now. This gift of their matriarch, through her own suffering, has facilitated our efforts to relieve the suffering of literally millions of other people. The use of HeLa cells (and other cell lines overtaken by HeLa cells) led to the development of some drugs that treated my own mother who was stricken with a lymph node-positive breast cancer when I was a junior in college, stimulating me to become a cancer researcher and allowing her to now be a 26-year breast cancer survivor.

I was also sure to address the young people in the audience, family and otherwise, to encourage them in science and medicine and offered our them an open invitation to visit with us in our laboratories and classrooms in the Research Triangle area.

These words got some applause and a few Amens and “Praise Jesus!” – affirmations and feedback that we rarely get in the context of university auditoriums and seminar programs. Knowing more about the Black church since moving to the South makes these affirmations even more meaningful.

I do not yet have the writing skills to adequately express how moving this experience was for me to have the opportunity to face the family and express my gratitude that the life I have today – the wife, daughter, house, guitars – stems from a story of injustice across the decades. Because of today’s clinical guidelines for anonymizing human tissue specimens, we most often have no idea as to who exactly provided the biological research tools we use in the laboratory. But to be hugged by Sonny Lacks and literally and philosophically embraced by so many of the family is an experience I will never forget.

And now that several dozen members of the Lacks family have autographed and inscribed my dissertation, it somehow seems more complete.
Veronica Spencer inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
Jackson inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg

Many of the family also put in their telephone numbers, quite ironic knowing how difficult it was for Rebecca to even get family members to return her phone calls for the first couple of years of her writing.

The guest speakers that followed were uniformly outstanding beginning with Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Halifax NAACP chapter. Rev. Ronnie Womack, mediator of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, gave us some of the most motivating old-time preaching, stressing that the day was one for unification – implying, to me at least, that we were there to recognize that the gift of a Black woman has impacted the lives of all racial and ethnic groups – and “that when CNN rolls across the bottom of the screen that a cure for cancer has been found,” that Henrietta Lacks will be part of that story.

The highlight for many of us was when Dr. Roland Pattillo took the pulpit to humbly note his role in the day and the generosity of he and his wife in providing the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks together with the Morehouse School of Medicine. In noting that over 60,000 peer-reviewed publications have made use of HeLa cells, Pattillo told us that even today, another such paper is published at a rate of one every two hours. Dr. Pattillo is deserving of his own blog post and I look forward to telling more of his story.

At the other end of the spectrum was the next speaker, a remarkable young man, freshman congressman Rep. Tom Perriello (I can say that because he’s about a decade my junior). An undergrad and law graduate of Yale University, this native of Virginia’s 5th district reflected on his work in West Africa where polio continues to afflict millions despite the millions saved in Western nations thanks to the role HeLa cells played early in vaccine development. Perriello excerpted a resolution he read into the Congressional Record last Friday honoring Henrietta Lacks (“Honoring Henrietta Pleasant-Lacks” full text and PDF).

As a side note, I drove past many advertisements for his Republican opponent, Robert Hurt, that read, “HURT U.S. Congress.”

My immediate thoughts were, no thank you – you’ve hurt it enough already.

Perriello is an energetic politician who causes Republicans to froth because of his dedication to the military, international relations, workforce development, and establishment of faith-based aid groups while also putting forth such heresy and tyranny as affordable health care and asking his campaign workers to also “tithe” hours on community service projects unrelated to the election. His district runs from the North Carolina border to north of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where his support is quite strong. I took it as a compliment that Rep. Perriello stopped me afterward to say I’d make a good politician – if it meant being like him, I would.

Reverend Alfred Chandler then closed with words that I think we can all do well to remember – that when we see someone in our community and feel an urge to pass judgment, bear in mind that we have no idea as to that person’s story.

Gravestone dedication
We were then off to the Lacks family cemetery on the property of the old home-house down Lacks Town Road, an absolutely beautiful stretch of rolling farmland. The photo below was taken looking south from the intersection of Mt. Laurel and Lacks Town Rd.
Mt Laurel and Lacks Town Rd 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
Elsie Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgAbout 100 people remained from the church service to dedicate the Henrietta Lacks gravestone just to the left of that of her mother, Eliza Pleasant. Another gravestone also being dedicated was that for Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter who died at age 15 at the Crownsville State Hospital, known then as The Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. The story of Elsie and the visit there by Rebecca and Deborah Lacks has been cited by many as one of the most emotional parts of Skloot’s book.
Sonny and PRM Forester 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgWith all of the press attention, Sonny Lacks made it a point to introduce to all NPR “Butch” Forester, the groundskeeper who maintains the previously overgrown Lacks family cemetery in its now peaceful and reverent state.
I also had the chance to walk over to the home-house where Henrietta, her husband David, and children lived. It’s tougher to see now than in the winter due to the trees and undergrowth but you can get a better glimpse of it from the photos then at Rebecca Skloot’s website.

And before heading back on the road, the church and family had a nice repast dinner with fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, meatballs, rice, and – nom! – chocolate cake.

Put simply, this was the single most moving day in my life as a scientist.

A roundup of press cover of the Henrietta Lacks headstone memorial dedication:
Lauren Compton and her videographer from WSET-TV in Lynchburg
wrote this article and filed a segment from the station having only an hour to get back to the studio, thereby missing the repast. Beyond being a superb reporter, Ms. Compton did not have to refer to the songsheet to sing the words to the hymns.

I had a lovely time chatting with Denise Watson Batts of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot who wrote “After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone.” Denise also had an excellent interview earlier this month in Baltimore with Sonny Lacks, eldest brother, Lawrence, and cousin Sadie Grinnan.

A superb writer, editor, and a fine gentleman, Tom McLaughlin, wrote this nicely detailed article for his South Boston News & Record. Although the press took numerous photographs at the services, only Tom put up a slideshow of 49 photos within that story. Tom and his mother, Sylvia O. McLaughlin, editor of the News & Record, are extremely proud of their newspaper and readers know that I am a huge fan of local news. The level of detail that local writers and publishers puts into such stories (or should) reminds us of the importance of sustained local reporting. I’m grateful to Tom and his Mom for sending me home with a few issues of their paper that covered Skloot’s book and the Lacks family stories. Tom’s own review of the book speaks from the viewpoint of a Southside Virginia native.

Tim Saunders from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, birthplace of Henrietta Lacks filed this article and video, “Halifax County community pays tribute to world famous native,” today.

A brief note appeared on June 1 on the website of Essence magazine.

Many thanks also go to Melissa Bell from The Washington Post and graduate of Northwestern University School of Journalism who patiently listened to my stories and whose work I look forward to reading.

I also want to publicly thank my lovely wife, PharmGirl, MD, and the illustrious PharmKid for understanding how much being away for this event meant to me. As always, I was on science time and a quick “couple of hours” trip took all of Saturday, a holiday weekend day we really needed to spend together after I’ve been out of town and away for other university events.

What’s my poison? Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author, professor Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook.pngThis is going to be a quick welcome to Deborah Blum (@deborahblum) who has just moved her blog, Speakeasy Science, to ScienceBlogs.
Why quick?
Because I am only 22 pages away from finishing her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. This engaging tale of the race of science and medicine against chemical poisonings for profit and punishment features the true story of NYC chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Of course, the other actors are arsenic, methanol, chloroform, thallium, and radium, among others. In the teens through the mid-1930s, long before benchtop atomic absorption spectrophotometry and LC/MS instruments, Norris and Gettler devised methods to detect poisons in human tissues with high sensitivity. These advances led to the prosecution of some, the absolution of the wrongly-accused, and revealed that our own government poisoned citizens who dared to challenge Prohibition.
Blum’s colorful biography accounts somewhat for her fixation with insects, chickens, monkeys, and chemistry, a discipline she pursued at Florida State University until setting her braid on fire and switching to journalism at the University of Georgia.
Blum won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in a newspaper series that led to her book, The Monkey Wars, about the ethics and polarization of primate research. A couple of books (Sex on the Brain, Love at Goon Park, and Ghost Hunters) and a plethora of writing assignments since, Blum now holds an endowed chair at the University of Wisconsin and as the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism.
But before I learned of her award-winning writing, I first came upon Deborah Blum as co-editor (with Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig) of A Field Guide for Science Writers, the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). The guide was recommended to me by Tom Linden, MD, when I joined the graduate advisory board of his medical journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill in his attempt to give a scientist some background on the profession.
Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of the history of science and medicine, so you can probably understand why I can’t wait to get back to reading The Poisoner’s Handbook. I was also originally trained as a toxicologist and published one of my first papers on heavy metals effects in the kidney before I moved to the discipline that chemicals are best used for therapeutic benefit. Hence, I am honored to now be writing under the ScienceBlogs masthead with a wonderful writer who has been one of my inspirations and with whom I share several passions.
But while I offer I warm welcome to Deborah Blum, a part of me also wants to warn those in her real life not to leave their beverage unattended in her presence.