chapter summaries, Skloot, part 2

Part II – Death

Chapter 12 – 1951 –  Perhaps the most significant moment of the book — Mary (Gey’s lab assistant who has been growing HeLa cells) stands next to Henrietta’s corpse as the pathologist, Dr. Wilbur, sews Henrietta up — after Wilbur has deposited parts of Henrietta’s organs into the petrie dishes Mary holds. Mary sees Henrietta’s toes and the chipped toenail polish, and for the first time, Mary realizes that HeLa cells come from a human being — someone Mary visualizes painting her toenails red. Painful to hear description of Henrietta’s body and the cancerous damage. Gorgeously awful description here: “And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls” (90). Storm at end of chapter — presages scientific storm?

Chapter 13 – 1951-3 – Great title – “The HeLa Factory” — OK, I like all the chapter titles. Underscores uniqueness of HeLa cells and the cell tissue firsts. HeLa cells don’t need room to grow but expand in culture until culture runs out. Highly susceptible to polio. First time live cells shipped by mail. This is a dizzying chapter — hard to keep up with everything that HeLa cells influenced: polio vaccine, cell cloning, discovery that cells have 46 (not 48) chromosomes, diagnosing genetic diseases, isolating stem cells, in vitro fertilization. Also underscores the huge profits made from HeLa cells and thus increases the almost surreal start of the book, when Deborah says that her family can’t afford doctors. Best chapter on significance of HeLa. Awful irony — Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted at same time as HeLa cells grown at Tuskegee (97).

Chapter 14 – 1953-4 – Traces revealing and hiding of Henrietta’s name as donor of HeLa cells. George Gey appears more a villain as he keeps Henrietta’s identity hidden. Result: Henrietta’s family does not know that her cells are still alive.

Chapter 15 – 1951-1965 – Focus on Deborah’s history. Awful abuse from Ethel, who moved into Day’s house with her husband, Galen. Children move to Lawrence and Bobette’s, but Galen continues to abuse Deborah. Bobbette convinces Deborah to stay in school and to fight off cousins.

Chapter 16 – 1999 – Back to Clover. Henrietta’s cousin Cliff shows Skloot where Henrietta is buried — at least, the general area, since Henrietta’s grave has no marker. Discussion of race and white relatives, slave owners. Skloot visits white relatives. They don’t acknowledge relationship.

Chapter 17 – 1954-1966 – Chester Southam gets my vote as a villain. Chief of virology at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research — he injects so many people with HeLa cells without telling them. How can this be? Fascinating discussion of Nuremberg trials, the NIH and review boards — critical moment sin medical history — again propelled by HeLa, to a great extent.

Chapter 18 -1960-66 – Discusses current state of cell culture, the use of hybrids — mouse cells and HeLa cells, for instance. Intriguing that the human cells in the hybrid eventually disappear. Public notion of cell hybrids bordered on hysteria. Skloot leave us with a cliffhanger: “And the PR problem for cell culture was only going to get worse from there” (143).

Chapter 19 – 1966-1973 – More about Deborah’s life and her youngest son’s life. Joe becomes Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman when he’s in jail. Deborah leaves Cheatah after a lot of domestic violence.

Chapter 20 – 1966 – Discusses Stanley Gartler’s contention that HeLa cells were contaminants — Gartler finds “a rare genetic marker called glucose-6-phosphate dehyrdrogenase-A (G6PD-A), which was present almost exclusively in black Americans. And even amon them it was fairly rare” (152-3). This chapter makes a cell tissue conference sound like the most engaging thriller. Chapter cliffhanger: “And those genetic test would eventually lead them [scientists investigating the “scope of the HeLa contamination problem”] to Henrietta’s family” (157).

Chapter 21 – 2000 – Back to Skloot’s journey. Gatekeepers. Sonny picks Skloot up and takes her to Lawrence’s house. And here’s what I think is a turning point: Lawrence asks Skloot, “‘Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did? ‘ he whispered. ‘I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing'” (162). Skloot finally meets Sonny, Lawrence, Day, and Bobette in this one visit. The title of the chapter is chilling — Night Doctors — because it discusses the black folks disappearing around Johns Hopkins. Skloot details the history of Johns Hopkins — built for the indigent — and then discusses two cases of racism. Horrific one about lead poisoning in the late 90s. Skloot ends the chapter with a powerful quote by Bobette about how doctors did not get consent from Henrietta to take her cells.

Chapter 22 – 1970-1973 – In of her most sardonic endings, Skloot finishes off this chapter with this quotation from a reporter at Science, who wrote a follow-up article to one she’d written on HeLa. Victor McKusick (one of the original authors of the first article to contain Henrietta’s name) corrected the Science reporter’s use of the pseudonym, Helen Lane. Here’s the quotation: “None of this alters the validity of the work done with HeLa cells,” she wrote, “but it may be worth noting — for the record.” Yes — it’s this record that Skloot pursues. This chapter discusses George Gey’s death from pancreatic cancer on 8 Nov. 1970. Mary Kubicek (Gey’s former assistant) becomes a mini-villain — George Gey tells her it’s OK to reveal Henrietta’s name, but Mary never does. Howard Jones (Hopkins researcher – doctor?) and Victor McKusick (geneticist) write an aritcle on HeLa as a tribute to Gey. Published in Dec. 1971 in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and they correct the diagnosis of Henrietta’s tumor — not an epidermoid carcinoma but “‘a very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix'” — Jones and McKusick say that both cancers in 1951 were treated with raditation. Skloot says, “This was the first time Henrietta’s real name appeared in print” (173). Intriguing history about Nixon declaring the War on Cancer as a way to distract from Vietnam — claim that cancer would be cured in five years seems ludicrous now. Cancer as a virus and the need for a vaccine — also seems strange. Discusses contamination problem again — Russian case of that assumed cells were from Russian cancer patients, but the cells were Henrietta’s. Walter Nelson-Rees, “a chromosome expert” (174) proved the connection. He’d heard Gartler’s presentation, and Nelson-Rees “had since been hired by the National Cancer Institute to help stop the contamination problem” 174. I like the discussion of “HeLa Hit Lists”  and Skloot’s descripti0n: “the equivalent of having a scarlet H pasted on your lab door” (174).


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