Category Archives: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Skloot chapter summaries, Part III – Immortality

Chapter 23 – 1973-4 – Turning point for the Lacks family — Bobbette finds out by chance — from her friend Gardenia’s brother-in-law who worked at the National Cancer Institute — that Henrietta’s cells are still alive. Bobbette runs home and tells Lawrence, who calls Johns Hopkins to ask about his mother’s cells. The first 2-3 pages of the chapter portray Bobbette’s surprise and frustration well. As a reader, I know things are going to get worse as the family processes the information — twenty-two years after Henrietta’s cells are taken, her family learns those cells are not only alive, they are also bought and sold for research.

And here’s an example of Skloot’s fairness in reporting — the discussion of consent and the status of research guidelines on pages 183-4 — Skloot gives both Susan Hsu (the postdoc fellow working with Victor McKusick, whom McKusick commanded to get blood from Day and Henrietta’s children) and Victor McKusick the benefit of doubt. Hsu said they didn’t need a consent form because they were just drawing blood: “Although this attitude wasn’t uncommon at the time, NIH guidelines stipulated that all human subject research funded by NIH — as McKusick’s was — required both informed consent and approval from a Hopkins review board. Those guidelines had been implemented in 1966, in the aftermath of the Southam trial, and then expanded to include a detailed definition of informed consent in 1971. They were in the process of being codified into law when Hsu called Day” (183-4). So — Hsu and McKusick acted unethically, and they should have known this — but Skloot gives them some wriggle room. The huge ghost hovering over this discussion is Tuskegee — as Skloot says about Bobbette: “It was like a nightmare. She’d read in the paper about the syphilis study at Tuskegee, which had just been stopped by the government after forty years, and now here was Gardenia’s brother-in-law, saying Hopkins had part of Henrietta alive and scientists everywhere were doing research on her and the family had no idea” (180). 40 years — it takes 40 years to stop the Tuskegee syphilis horror.

I like this chapter as an excellent example of Skloot’s interweaving of narrative strands — the current time in 1973 when Bobbette learns that Henrietta’s cells are alive, to a place much different at about the same time — the First International Workshop on Human Gene Mapping at Yale University, then back to Day and Hsu’s interaction (and the rest of the chapter). And I like it as an example of Skloot’s ability to present differing perspectives even-handedly: she does not condemn Hsu or McKusick’s decision not to obtain consent but places that action in historical context, and she does not condemn Day’s or Bobbette’s reactions, but also presents them in context. Skloot can condemn; just see her passages on Southam and his experiments.

In the rest of the chapter, we learn more about Deborah — her fear that she’d die around the same time her mother did from the same cancer, her life (two low-paying jobs, two kids, no child support), her fears about what researchers were doing with her mother’s cells.

Discussion of HEW and the federal law instituted 30 June 1974 — IRB “approval and informed consent for all federally funded research” (187). HEW — Department of Health, Education, and Welfare — in 1979, Department of Education was established, and HEW morphed into HHS, the current Department of Health and Human Resources.

Another example of journalistic fairness: Deborah remembers meeting McKusick once when she went to Hopkins to give blood on 26 June 1974. Deborah remembers that McKusick gave her a copy of Medical Genetics, signed the copy (he edited it), and showed her the paragraph with her mother’s name. When Skloot interviews McKusick many years later (he’s 79), McKusick does not remember the incident at all and says he never had “firsthand contact with the family” (189). No commentary from Skloot on whom to believe.

But the use of Susan Hsu’s quotation at the end of the chapter gives us a hint of Skloot’s sentiment. Skloot ends with this: “The she asked if I’d tell the Lacks family one more thing for her: ‘If they are willing,’ she said, ‘I wouldn’t mind to go back and get some more blood'” (190). Hsu has just told Skloot that she was shocked that the Lacks family didn’t understand that they were not being tested for cancer but that their blood was being drawn to study genetics. Hsu asks Skloot to tell the family how proud they should be of Henrietta, how grateful Hsu is. Nevertheless, the final quotation leaves us with that echoed request and the implication is that no matter how anyone felt, the result remains the same: the family’s physical and biological material was taken and used — immensely, widely, and at profit — without the family having given consent or knowing.

Chapter 24 – 1975 – Before even getting too far, I had to google Michael Rogers, the author of the Rolling Stone‘s article on Henrietta Lacks. Anyone who got a degree in creative writing and physics from Stanford by age 19 has to be interesting. Rogers works now as The Practical Futurist at MSNBC and has an informative website. I’m going to check out his Practical Futurist column later.

Skloot addresses profit clearly — “At that point no one in Henrietta’s immediate family except Deborah seemed particularly upset about Henrietta’s story or the existence of those cells” (193) until Rogers’ Rolling Stone article appears and announces that a vial of HeLa cells sold for $25. As Skloot writes, “With that paragraph, suddenly the Lacks brothers became very interested in the story of HeLa” (193).

This chapter marks Deborah’s intense questions — how much her relationship with her mother molds her fears and hopes. The diary entry on pages 195-6 is powerful — from Deborah’s reference to her upbringing which mandated silence to her tortured imaginings of her mother’s pain and aloneness on the day she died. Deborah’s research shows courage and tenacity.

The chapter ends by indicating the broader concerns implicit in Henrietta’s story — as Skloot mentions that the Lacks family did not know that Susan Hsu and Victor McKusick had published in a journal the results of taking the family’s blood, and if they had known, they would not have been able to afford a lawyer to fight the public knowledge — Skloot then indicates a similar case across the country, and we know the next chapter will deal with John Moore’s case.

Chapter 25 – 1976-1988 – From the first paragraph: “It turned out that at the age of thirty-one, Moore had hairy-cell leukemia, a rare and deadly cancer that filled his spleen with malignant blood cells until it bulged like an overfilled inner tube” (199). This chapter details the history of patenting living organisms — 1980 Supreme Court ruling which declared that Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty could patent a bacterium he “genetically engineered to consume oil and to help clean up oil spills” (201). Patenting cell lines, however, did not “require informing or getting consent from the ‘cell donors'” (201). 1988 Supreme Court of California judged against George Moore’s claim for rights to the products from his spleen cells — the ruling stated that any tissues left in labs or doctors’ offices are considered abandoned and available for anyone to use. Creepiest quotation in the chapter comes from the dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who “told a reporter that as long as researchers disclose their financial interests, patients shouldn’t object to the use of their tissues. ‘If you did,’ he said, ‘I guess you could sit there with your ruptured appendix and negotiate'” (206). Wow. Hubris, much?

Chapter 26 – 1980-1985 – This chapter updates us on Deborah’s family. Zakariyya is out of jail and homeless. He sleeps on a bench across from his father’s home; his father invites him in; Zakariyya refuses — he blames Day for Henrietta’s death, for leaving the children with Ethel to get abused. Sonny is in jail, and Deborah’s son, Alfred, gets into more and more trouble. Michael Gold’s book, A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused, is published in 1985. Deborah reads it and falls apart at the description of her mother’s horrifically painful death. When Skloot asks Gold if he interviewed the family, Gold responds to Skloot that “the family wasn’t really my focus. … I just thought they might make some interesting color for the scientific story” (211). Intriguing choice of words. And it’s clear that Skloot’s book is the obverse of Gold’s.

Chapter 27 – 1984-1995 – Chapter begins by discussing Harald zur Hausen’s discovery in 1984 of HPV-18. First sentence of chapter: “More than thirty years after Henrietta’s death, research on HeLa cells finally helped uncover how her cancner started and why her cells never died” (212). Zur Hausen “requested a sample of Henrietta’s original biopsy from Hopkins” (212), and he found that “Henrietta had been infected with multiple copies of HPV-18, which turned out to be one of the most virulent strains of the virus” (212). Harald zur Hausen developed the HPV vaccine and won the Nobel Prize in 2008.

Focus is on immortality of HeLa cells, discussion of Hayflick limit — that normal cells divide about 50 times before they die. Cells have a kind of tail, called a telomere, and that shortens every time a cell divides. HeLa cells contain telomerase, an enzyme that builds telomeres. Here’s the final sentence of the chapter: “It was this immortality, and the strength with which Henrietta’s cells grew, that made it possible for HeLa to take over so many other cultures — they simply outlived and outgrew any other cells they encountered” (217).

Chapter 28 – 1996-1999 – This chapter is a fascinating history of the BBC documentary, the conference at Morehouse organized by Roland Patillo — who also convinced Atlanta to declare 11 October Henrietta Lacks Day — the participation of the Smithsonian, the Henrietta Lacks Health History Museum Foundation started by Courtney Speed, and the con by Cofield. So, cultural representations to honor Henrietta’s memory — and woven through all this is the main thread: Deborah’s journey. By the end of the chapter, Deborah finally has access to her mother’s medical records and reads them — and she learns about her sister, Elsie, and her commitment to Crownsville. Deborah calls the institution and then has a nervous and physical breakdown signaled by a severe outbreak of hives. The doctor at the hospital Deborah visits said Deborah’s blood pressure was so high, she nearly had a stroke. Skloot ends the chapter by mentioning her own entry into Deborah’s story — just a few weeks after Deborah gets out of the hospital, Roland Patillo contacts jer and advises Deborah to speak with the reporter, Rebecca Skloot.

Chapter 29 – 2000 – This chapter is one of the more poignant. First of all, there’s Christoph Lengauer, the cancer researcher at Hopkins who “framed a fourteen-by-twenty-inch print of Henrietta’s chromosomes that he’d ‘painted’ using FISH [fluorescence in situ hybridization]” (234) as a gift for Deborah, for the Lacks family. He also invited Deborah into the lab to see Henrietta’s cells. This chapter also describes Skloot’s first meeting with Deborah and the three days they spend in Baltimore talking about Deborah’s search for her mother. Skloot does a masterful job balancing Deborah’s knowledge and misconceptions, just as she shows us a woman who’s worked hard to understand her mother’s contribution to science and is paranoid about that history — when Deborah snatches the envelope containing her mother’s medical records away from Skloot, we understand Deborah’s panicked state and her pronouncement that she doesn’t know whom to trust.

Chapter 30 – 2000 – Love the narrative in this chapter, which reads more like a novel than a nonfiction book. The description of Deborah’s grandchildren playing around in the back seat of the car as Deborah drives Skloot to meet Zakariyyah; the description of Zakariyyah and how he reacts to reading Skloot’s article in the Johns Hopkins Magazine; Zakariyyah’s tears as he looks at Christoph Lengauer’s gift — the photo of Henrietta’s cells — and Zakariyyah’s agreement to go with Skloot and Deborah to see his mother’s cells at Hopkins. Skloot uses humor to address her own fears about meeting Zakariyya: “I hoped to see the age of thirty, and it seemed like being the first white person to show up at Zakariyya’s apartment asking questions about his mother might interfere with that” (241).

Chapter 31 – 2000-2001 – Skloot describes her deepening relationship with Deborah, from the ups and downs of contact — Deborah asked for repeated assurances that Skloot would tell her everything — and although Deborah was told by many to not trust a white person with Henrietta’s story, Deborah stands by her own convictions:

“Everybody always yellin, ‘Racism! Racism! That white man stole that black woman’s cells! That white man killed that black woman!’ That’s crazy talk,” she told me. “We all black and white and everything else — this isn’t a race thing. There’s two sides to the story, and that’s what we want to bring out. Nothing about my mother is truth if it’s about wantin to fry the researchers. It’s not about punish the doctors or slander the hospital. I don’t want that.” (251)

For the first time, a reporter or health care professional or someone with more knowledge finally shares all the knowledge with Deborah. Skloot sends Deborah her research — identifies what is fact or fiction, warns Deborah when something might be upsetting. Skloot invites Deborah on her research trips. Skloot introduces Deborah to Google, and Deborah stays up nights researching. She becomes more organized in her research. At the end of the chapter, Deborah has agreed to go see her mother’s cells, but she gets a call that her son Alfred has been arrested. Clearly upset, Deborah still wants to see the cells.

Chapter 32 – 2001 – May 11, 2001, Skloot, Deborah, and Zakariyya visit Christoph Lengauer at Hopkins. Christoph shows them the freezers, shows them HeLa — climax of the book, I think, occurs when Deborah holds a vial of her mother’s cells. Lengauer shows Deborah and Zakariyya how to use the microscope, draws information about cells, and tells them that Hopkins screwed up and that the Lackses should get money from the cells. The chapter is powerful — Zakariyya and Deborah finally see their mother’s cells.

Chapter 33 – 2001 – Skloot reminds us that the second thing she promised Deborah was to find out what happened to Elsie, so Deborah and Rebecca go on a trip the day after they see Henrietta’s cells. The visit to Crownsville yields an autopsy report on Elsie Lacks and a horrific picture of her — she is crying and being held by white, manicured, female hands so that her face faces the camera. Deborah gets a copy of the records and the picture. One of the administrators gives Skloot articles on Crownsville describing conditions in the 50s. As Skloot writes, “The Crownsville that Elsie died in was far worse than anything Deborah had imagined” (275). Since Elsie was diagnosed an epileptic, she likely underwent the inhumane experiments done on epileptics (extracting fluid around brain and then allowing brain to refill — takes 2-3 months, during which time the victim has agonizing headaches).

Chapter 34 – Chapter 33 ends with Deborah giving Henrietta’s medical records to Skloot. Chapter 34 discusses what Skloot finds — and we hear very little about the medical records. The chapter describes how Deborah comes into Skloot’s room to look at the records and how Deborah finally attacks Skloot, who then loses her patience with Deborah for the first time. Deborah explains the importance of the medical records to her and her family and also tells Skloot about the Cofield con.

Chapter 35 – 2001 – Deborah and Rebecca travel to Clover and go to Gladys’s house (Henrietta’s sister). Deborah has become more and more erratic and agitated all day, holding pictures of her sister. In Clover, Deborah has Skloot take pictures of Deborah holding pictures of Elsie near Henrietta’s grave. Deborah’s cousin Gary comes home to Gladys’s house, and then Gary does a ritual-sermon-prayer over Deborah — Deborah and Gary ask for the cells to be lifted from Deborah. And Gary asks that the cells be given to Rebecca. The last line is great. Deborah says to Skloot, “You ready for some soul cleansing?” (293)

Chapter 36 – 2001 – This short chapter (3 pages) states that Deborah goes home to see her doctor to deal with the hives that still cover her body. Rebecca goes back to visit Gary and he has her read from the Bible (for the first time in her life). Skloot offers the Lackses’ interpretation of Henrietta as an immortal angel as something that makes absolute sense in the Bible. This chapter exemplifies the failure (?) of science writing.

Chatper 37 – 2001 – Sept. 11 happens and the National Cancer Foundation reception is cancelled, so Deborah does not give her speech. She has a stroke in church. Gets out of the hospital. Deborah and Rebecca go to church for a baptism and Deborah’s husband, Reverand Pullum, calls Skloot up to the pulpit to tell the story of Henrietta’s cells. Pullum ends by saying the story now belongs to the next generation, who now know their grandmother and great grandmother helped the world — and that they can do the same.

Chatper 38 – 2009 – The final chapter — Skloot finds out about Deborah’s death a week and a half after it happens. Davon, Deborah’s grandson, finds her with a smile on her face. The final lines are Deborah’s: “But maybe I’ll come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world.” She paused and nodded again. “I think I’d like that” (310). The chapter starts out with a litany of death: first comes Clover, which mostly disappears; then comes Deborah’s cousin Gary of a heart attack at 52, Cliff’s brother Fred (throat cancer), Day (stroke), Cootie (suicide).

I like the image at the end of Deborah and Henrietta as HeLa cells, superhero healers.

Where They Are Now – lists major persons and follows up

Afterword – Skloot delineates the cell tissue controversy and discusses it in two broad terms: consent and money. Afterword emphasizes that these controversies are only just gearing up; we all need to think about our values, ethics, practices.


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).

structure – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

OK. I love this book. For this second read, I’m going to focus more on the structure. During my first read, I loved the interweaving of cell-story and Henrietta-story. And I liked the non-chronological approach. The book is generally chronological — that is, it follows the chronology of Skloot’s search — from the time in the community college classroom when her biology teacher, Donald Defler, introduced HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks — to the end, which I’m not going to reveal, because we’re only reading Part 1: Life for this week. I love this section on page 4:

“HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Defler said.

Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one last swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.

It’s the erasure of Henrietta Lacks’ name and the blowing of the chalk — and that puff of chalk, that erasure stuck with Skloot. The book is a journey to undo erasure by following puffs of chalk.

Another favorite paragraph from the first pages is the third to the last one in the Prologue: The Woman in the Photograph, the one that starts, “Deborah and I came from very different cultures” (7). So succinct and rich and revealing. The last paragraph of the prologue:

The Lackses challenged everything I thought about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family — particularly Deborah — and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

And there are those characters I keep wishing for.

So, structure: Prologue — sets up this twin strand, the stories of HeLa cells and the story of the Lackses. Let me revise that — there’s a triple strand at least. And the third part is the story of Skloot’s search.

Deborah’s Voice – an italized one-page piece all in Deborah’s voice that sits between the prologue and chapter 1. I admire and am grateful for this reverence. Deborah’s voice is apart, a powerful solo — rightfully so. If anybody belongs to this book, it’s Deborah.

Chapter 1 – 1951 – starts with Henrietta Lacks’ exam at Johns Hopkins. Story of Henrietta’s worry about the knot on her cervix, details of Johns Hopkins in the 50s, excerpt from Henrietta’s medical record, which stands as a biographical snapshot. Describes difficulties of health care, child care. And the rapid growth of Henrietta’s cervical tumor.

Chapter 2 – 1920-1942 – details Henrietta’s childhood and history, tobacco farming, relationship with David Lacks, or Day. Great descriptions of children’s life on the tobacco farm in Virginia, taking tobacco to sell. Hardships of farming. Move to Baltimore and the steel mills.

Chapter 3 – 1951 – Back to diagnosis, discussion of cervical cancer and Richard Wesley TeLinde, Howard Jones’ boss — Jones was the gynecologist who examined Henrietta when she went to Hopkins. That TeLinde was “one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country” (17) makes for some intriguing serendipity. Fascinating discussion of state of cervical cancer research — that TeLinde gets laughed off the stage at a meeting for pathologists when he proposes that invasive cervical cancers begin as carcinoma in situ — hard to believe. Difficult also to fathom that Pap smears have only been around since 1941, when George Papanicolaou developed the procedure. Even more astounding is that Henrietta’s cervical cancer is treated with radium — tubes and plaques placed in and outside her cervix. I like the cliffhangers — there’s one on p. 30: “And TeLinde began collecting samples from any woman who happened to walk into Hopkins with cervical cancer. Including Henrietta.” And on p. 33, the end of the chapter: “They were sure Henrietta’s cells would die just like all the others.” Introduction of George Gey, his wife Margaret, and their lab — who had “spent the last three decades working to grow malignant cells outside the body, hoping to use them to find cancer’s cause and cure” (30).

Chapter 4 – 1951 – Another zinger at the end: “Soon, George told a few of his closest colleagues that he thought his lab might have grown the first immortal human cells.

To which they replied, Can I have some? And George said yes.” Thus starts the journey of HeLa cells. This chapter shines with Skloot’s ability to give us a character — and we’ve got that with George Gey. Love the descriptions and anecdotes, and the combined power of Margaret, the former surgical nurse and inventor of techniques such as the Gey Chicken Bleeding Technique, and the vibrant George with his ability to build anything and to invent the roller-tube culturing technique. This chapter also details the challenges of making a culture to grow cells. Mary’s ennui — these cells will never grow — offers a great foil for the end of the chapter, when Henrietta’s cancerous cells were “accumulating by the millions” (41).

Chapter 5 – 1951 – Great description of Henrietta (Hennie) on p. 43. Details how Henrietta feels after treatments, going dancing with Sadie, then more treatments and feeling worse. Contrary to practice of letting women know that radium treatments would leave them sterile, Henrietta was not told — says she would have refused treatment.

Chapter 6 – 1999 – Back to the third strand — Skloot’s search for the story. Starts with her 27th birthday and finding out about The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium at Morehouse and getting in touch with the conference organizer, “Roland Patillo, a professor of gynecology at Morehouse who’d been one of George Gey’s only African-American students” (49). Patillo is the first gatekeeper, and I like him a lot. As Skloot says, he grills her for three days before he gives her Deborah’s phone number — he tests Skloot’s knowledge about racism and medicine.

Chapter 6 – 1999 – First phone call to Deborah. Second phone call that ends with this zinger: “I wouldn’t hear her voice again for nearly a year” (54). Great story about how Skloot tries to get in touch with family. I like the last sentence — Skloot finally speaks with David Lacks: “‘Well, so let my old lady cells talk to you and leave me alone,’ he snapped. ‘I had enough ‘a you people.’ Then he hung up” (55).

Chapter 7 – 1951 – State of cell research. Starts with George Gey’s only televised interview, in which he does not mention Henrietta’s name. States that live cells had never been mailed, but George Gey begins sending them anywhere cancer researchers wanted them. Skloot does a masterful job of detailing the public’s skepticism about cell tissue cultures through the story of Alexis Carrell, “a French surgeon at the Rockefeller Center,” who grew an “immortal chicken heart” (58). Carrell turns out to be a whacked-out eugenicist, racist extraordinaire. Brilliant description of his lab as a negative of a Ku Klux Klan meeting : lab technicians in black robes and hoods because Carrell believed wrongly that light killed cells. Last paragraph is great:

Either way, by 1951, when Henrietta Lacks’s cells began growing in the Gey lab — just five years after the widely publicized “death” of Carrell’s chicken heart — the public image of immortal cells was tarnished. Tissue culture was the stuff of racism, creepy science fiction, Nazis, and snake oil. It wasn’t something to be celebrate. In fact, no one paid much attention to it at all. (62)

Chapter 8 – 1951 – Chronicles rapid spread of tumors, horrific pain, continued radiation, and Henrietta finally asking to stay in the hospital. No pain killers worked. David and children visited at first, but Henrietta was too upset by the visit. End of chapter states that George Gey never met Henrietta, but Skloot quotes one colleague of Gey’s, who said Gey visited Henrietta: “George told me he leaned over Henrietta’s bed and said, ‘Your cells will make you immortal'” (66).

Chapter 9 – 1999 – Back to Skloot’s search. She goes to Turner Point. Finds Courtney Speed. Great descriptions of Speed on pages 71-72. Speed takes her to the library, gets a tape, takes Skloot to her beauty shop and tells her to watch the tape. It’s a BBC documentary Skloot had been trying to get. She finally reaches Sonny, the person she was supposed to meet, and Sonny says he has decided against talking to her. Wishes her luck if she wants to go meet relatives in Clover.

Chapter 10 – 1999 – Skloot goes to Clover. Excellent descriptions of town and Lacks Town. Skloot meets a first cousin, Hector Henry, or Cootie. He invites Skloot in and talks about Henrietta and spirits.

Chapter 11 – 1951 – 4 October 1951, 12:15am, Henrietta dies. Chapter discusses eight young men who drop work and go to Baltimore to give blood. Horrific pain. Not any easy chapter to read.