In the Prologue to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot describes an old photograph of a pretty, fearless-looking young woman with light brown skin. It is a picture of Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. A few months before her death, a doctor cut out a small sample of her cancer cells, which became the first and most important line of human cells ever to survive and multiply indefinitely in the laboratory environment. Her cells have helped scientists make some of the most important advances in modern medical history—but they were taken without her knowledge and without her permission.
Rebecca Skloot became interested in this story when, at the age of sixteen, she enrolled in a community college biology class to fulfill a high school science requirement. Her teacher, Donald Defler, gave a lecture about the amazing qualities of human cells. In it, he mentioned that cell reproduction was “beautiful…like a perfectly choreographed dance.” He explained that even one mistake in this dance can cause cells to reproduce uncontrollably: cancer.
During his lecture, Defler told his class that when Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer, scientists had been trying and failing to make human cells reproduce in a laboratory for decades. For some reason, Henrietta’s cells were different. They survived and reproduced indefinitely in a tissue culture, becoming a cell line scientists named HeLa. HeLa cells have now lived outside Henrietta’s body longer than they lived inside it, and they are still helping researchers learn about human cells, to develop treatments for cancer, and to study countless other diseases.
At the end of his lecture, Defler added one piece of personal information about Henrietta Lacks: “She was a black woman.” Rebecca wanted to know more, so she found Defler after class and asked whether Henrietta Lacks had known how important her cells were. Defler did not know. Neither Rebecca’s biology book nor her parents’ encyclopedia had any further information either.
When Rebecca went on to study biology in college, she found that “HeLa cells were omnipresent” in her field. She continued to seek out information about Henrietta Lacks, but no other professors mentioned her. Many college biology textbooks said that the woman who produced the cells was named Helen Lane.
Eventually Rebecca found some articles about Henrietta Lacks from the 1970s. From them, she learned that the Lacks family was not informed about HeLa until almost 25 years after Henrietta’s death, and they were shocked to find out that the cells were now being sold for profit. According to the article, the family felt “that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”
In graduate school, Rebecca studied nonfiction writing, and she decided to try telling Henrietta Lacks’s story. She spent a decade searching for information about both the cells and the woman whose body they came from. In the process, she befriended Deborah Lacks, who was convinced that her mother’s spirit wanted the story told.
Shortly after her daughter Deborah was born, Henrietta Lacks told a group of female friends and cousins that she felt something wrong in her womb. She described the feeling as “a knot inside me.” The other women encouraged her to see a doctor. Henrietta did not heed their advice but did not complain about the pain again. Not long afterward, she found out she was pregnant with her fifth child. Her friends thought that the "knot" must have been the baby. Henrietta said they were wrong but did not talk to a doctor about it.
A few months after her youngest son, Joe, was born, Henrietta began to experience vaginal bleeding at the wrong time of the month. She took a hot bath, inserted a finger into her vagina, and found
a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening of her womb.
At this point Henrietta could no longer put off a visit to the doctor. Her husband drove her to the gynecology clinic at Johns Hopkins hospital in East Baltimore. This hospital was twenty miles from their house, a good deal further than several other hospitals in the area—but it was the only one that offered treatment to black patients like the Lackses.
Howard Jones, the gynecologist on duty, listened to Henrietta’s complaint and flipped through her chart. He noted a long history of untreated medical conditions, including a series of nose and throat problems, a possible case of sickle cell anemia, and untreated gonorrhea and syphilis. Henrietta had refused most of the tests and treatments doctors had recommended for these conditions.
Rebecca Skloot notes that Henrietta probably refused health treatments because
walking into Hopkins was like entering a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language.
She had only a seventh-grade education, and she had spent her life working on farms and raising her children. She only visited doctors “when she thought she had no choice.”
During the exam, Howard Jones found exactly what Henrietta said he would find: a cervical tumor. It was “the size of a nickel,” and it looked “like grape Jello.” He took a biopsy and sent it to the lab for testing. Afterward, he noted that doctors had not seen the tumor a few months before, when Henrietta was at Johns Hopkins to give birth to Joe. It was unlikely that anyone would have missed such a tumor—so it must have “grown at a terrifying rate.”
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the eighth of ten children. Her mother died in 1924, at which point her father took all the children to his family’s home in Clover, Virginia and split them up to live with various relatives. Henrietta was placed with Tommy Lacks, her grandfather, in a four-room cabin that had once been home to slaves. This cabin was the center of Lacks family life, and everyone called it the home-house.
When Henrietta moved in, Tommy Lacks was already raising another grandchild, Henrietta’s cousin David Lacks. David, whom everyone called Day, had been born to an unwed mother on the home-house floor nine years before. Henrietta spent the rest of her life with Day, eventually marrying him and giving birth to five children.
In childhood, Henrietta and Day got up early each morning to tend the farm animals and the kitchen garden. When they were finished, they went to work in the tobacco fields with their siblings and cousins. In early childhood, they attended school as well, but neither made it past elementary school.
When they were not working, the many children of Henrietta’s extended family went swimming, held bonfires, and played games together. In summer, the cousins frequently slept all together in a crawl space over a kitchen outbuilding near the home-house. In harvest season, they accompanied Tommy one evening each week on trips to South Boston to sell tobacco. On these trips, they and other black farming families slept alongside farm animals in the basement of the warehouse where the tobacco was sold.
In her early teen years, Henrietta was popular with boys because she was so pretty. Her affections wavered between her cousin Day and another cousin, Crazy Joe. However, she had been sharing a room with Day since she was a young girl, and the eventual result “didn’t surprise anyone: they started having children together.” Their son Lawrence was born when Henrietta was fourteen. Four years later, his sister Lucile, nicknamed Elsie, was born. She was epileptic and mentally retarded. The Lacks family described her as “simple” and “touched.”
Henrietta and Day married two years after Elsie's birth, when Henrietta was twenty years old. After the wedding, they went straight out to work in the tobacco fields. However, their life as farmers did not last much longer. It was 1941, and the United States was just getting involved in World War II. This brought new opportunities for black workers, and Day soon moved to Turner Station, outside Baltimore, to work in a steel mill. A few months later, Henrietta followed.
In 1951, the Johns Hopkins gynecologist Howard Jones and his boss, Richard Wesley TeLinde, were working hard to develop and improve methods for treating cervical cancer. At the time, doctors had just begun to use the Pap smear test to screen women for cancer. However, there was widespread misinformation and disagreement about what to do with the information from the screenings. Among other things, doctors disagreed about which tests indicated cancer, and about whether doctors should leave some cancers alone or treat all of them with invasive surgical procedures.
Because of the lack of information about cervical cancer, healthy women were sometimes accidentally diagnosed with cervical cancer. In such cases, doctors often performed a hysterectomy—the surgical removal of the uterus—on a perfectly healthy woman. Meanwhile, women with cancer often got passed over for surgery, either because their doctors failed to recognize cancer cells when they saw them, or because they had a doctor who believed certain cervical carcinomas were not dangerous.
TeLinde wanted to improve cancer treatment, both to minimize unnecessary hysterectomies and to prove that all women with cervical carcinomas needed invasive treatment. To this end, he used information and tissue samples, without consent, from women who came to Johns Hopkins for treatment. At the time, this was a common practice.
TeLinde wanted to grow and compare living samples of healthy and cancerous cervical tissue. To this end, he enlisted the help of George Gey, the scientist in charge of tissue culture at Johns Hopkins. Gey was happy to help TeLinde in exchange for a steady supply of cervical tissue samples from TeLinde’s patients. Gey wanted to use these samples to grow
the first immortal human cells: a continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample.
Howard Jones found out that Henrietta’s tumor was malignant on February 5, 1951. He informed Henrietta immediately, but she did not tell anyone the diagnosis. She only said that she needed to go to the hospital for a few days for some treatment. Day dropped her off at Johns Hopkins the following day. There she signed a form that gave Johns Hopkins doctors permission “to perform any operative procedures…that they may deem necessary.”
After checking into the hospital, Henrietta underwent a myriad of tests. The doctors prescribed the best known treatment for her condition, which involved the use of “radium, a white radioactive metal that glows an eerie blue.” But before beginning this treatment, the doctor performing Henrietta’s operation cut two small pieces of tissue from her cervix—one sample of healthy tissue, and one of the tumor. Shortly afterward, the tissue was taken to Gey’s lab, where Gey and his assistants planned to try to use them to grow more cells. Gey received them with excitement, as he always did. But the scientists and technicians who worked with him “were sure Henrietta’s cells would die just like all the others.”
When Henrietta Lacks’s cells arrived in George Gey's lab, his assistant, Mary Kubicek, was eating a sandwich. It was her job to handle new cell samples, but today she dawdled a while before beginning. These attempts to grow immortal human cells always took hours of tedious work, and thus far, they had always failed.
In spite of its failures, George Gey’s lab was state of the art for its time. Gey's wife, Margaret, had been instrumental in helping to overcome some of the most difficult obstacles to growing cells in culture. The first of these was that nobody knew exactly which ingredients were necessary in the liquid used for feeding cells. Slowly, over the course of years, the Geys...
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Soon Henrietta Lacks returned home from the hospital and resumed her normal life. On the weekends, she took her family to her childhood home in Clover, where they all helped in the tobacco fields and enjoyed time with the family. Her family did not know that she was sick. They were, however, aware of another heartache in her life: recently she had decided it was too difficult to care for her mentally retarded daughter, Elsie. At her doctors’ recommendation, Henrietta had committed Elsie to a mental hospital.
Henrietta kept her cancer a secret through her first and second radium treatments. After that, doctors told her that the tumor was shrinking, but that they needed to perform X-ray...
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It was not until 1999, eleven years after she first heard of HeLa cells, that Rebecca Skloot found some papers from a gathering called “The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium.” She called Roland Pattillo, a professor of gynecology who had organized the symposium.
On the phone, Pattillo admitted to Rebecca that he knew the Lacks family. However, he said flat-out that he was not eager to put her into contact with them. For over an hour, he pressured her to explain why she wanted to research Henrietta Lacks. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are white,” said Pattillo, who was African American.
Pattillo demanded that Rebecca explain what she knew about the...
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In 1951, not long after Henrietta began her cancer treatments, George Gey appeared in a television interview to talk about his research. He made a brief explanation of how cells were structured and how they became cancerous. Then he held up a bottle of cancer cells—probably Henrietta’s—and said that he hoped to cure cancer someday. At the time, he was already beginning to send HeLa cells to scientists around the world, and scientists were beginning to learn from them by exposing them to toxins, radiation, and infections. In the interview, Gey did not mention Henrietta Lacks by name, but it is unlikely that the public would have paid much attention if he had.
In the 1950s, most...
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After Henrietta Lacks’s radiation treatments were complete, doctors saw no more signs of tumors in her body. Henrietta did not believe that she was cured; she told them she thought her cancer was spreading. They told her that she was fine and sent her home. There is nothing in their notes to indicate that she questioned them further. In the 1950s, it was not customary for patients to question doctors’ judgment, or for poor black people to question highly educated white people.
Over the next couple of months, Henrietta repeatedly returned to the hospital to complain of pain. At first, she was told she was fine. After a while, however, doctors found an enormous tumor in her abdomen....
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A few days after Day hung up on Rebecca, she drove to Baltimore to speak with his second son, who was also named David, but who went by Sonny. She paged Sonny several times from her hotel room at the Holiday Inn, but he did not reply. While she waited, she reviewed a Rolling Stone article about the Lacks family from the 1970s. As she read through it, she realized that the writer of the article had stayed in the same Holiday Inn when he researched the Lacks family decades before.
Sonny never called back, so eventually Rebecca gave up and set out to find Henrietta’s old address in Turner Station, on the outskirts of the city. It was a poor neighborhood that was generally...
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Soon after her trip to Turner Station, Rebecca drove to Clover, Virginia. There she found a run-down main street full of closed-up shops whose dust-covered merchandise could be seen through the windows. There were some churches, beauty parlors, and one post office still in occasional use—but all were locked when Rebecca arrived. She saw nobody at all except for an old white man with a bicycle who waved hello. She stopped and asked him to direct her to Lacks Town, where Henrietta had grown up. He silently pointed her in the right direction.
As it turned out, Lacks Town was a single road sparsely populated with tiny homes—cabins left over from the slave era, cinderblock shacks, and...
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Henrietta’s suffering went on for months. She had tumors in most of her major organs. Her kidneys were failing. Her stomach was swollen. She received so many blood transfusions that a doctor eventually put a stop to them, saying that she had depleted the supplies in the blood bank.
Word of Henrietta’s blood bank problem soon reached the steel mill where her husband and many of her male cousins worked. By now, the whole community knew about Henrietta’s illness, and they all wanted to help her get better. Henrietta’s cousin Emmett Lacks gathered a group of eight men and took them to the hospital to donate blood for her.
Most of the men who went to give blood that day...
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When George Gey found out about Henrietta’s death, he requested an autopsy and further tissue samples. For that, he needed consent from Henrietta’s husband. Oddly, although doctors needed no permission to take tissue from the living, there were clear laws stating that families must give permission before doctors could perform an autopsy or take tissue samples from the dead.
When someone from Johns Hopkins first asked Day for permission to perform an autopsy on Henrietta, he said no. When he went to the hospital later to sign papers, doctors pressed him to change his mind. He ended up giving permission for a partial autopsy, one which would leave the body fairly presentable for the...
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1951 brought a polio epidemic to the United States. In 1952, Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine—but he could not yet begin using it to vaccinate children. First he needed to perform medical tests. To do this, he needed human cells—more human cells than anyone had ever before produced at one time.
The National Foundation for Infant Paralysis (NFIP) soon contacted George Gey, who was known for his work on cell cultures. Gey tested the HeLa cells and found that they were susceptible to polio—a necessary condition for cells used in a trial to test a polio vaccine. He developed a method for growing a great quantity of HeLa cells in a small space, and he found a way to ship...
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As HeLa cells helped scientists make several breakthroughs in medicine, the public became curious about the human being behind those cells. George Gey wanted Henrietta Lacks’s name to remain confidential from the public, but many researchers and assistants already knew who she was. Soon one of them leaked Henrietta’s name to the press. The Minneapolis Star published an article, incorrectly revealing the name of the source of the HeLa cells as Henrietta Lakes.
Not long after this story appeared, Gey received inquiries from a magazine writer named Roland H. Berg who wanted to do a human interest story about “Mrs. Lakes” and her family. George Gey's...
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After Henrietta’s death, nobody told the young Lacks children what had happened to their mother. In the 1950s, serious illnesses were not discussed openly in families, and children were expected not to ask questions. Because of this, the disappearance of their mother remained a mystery to them for years.
Day had to work two jobs to support his family, so Lawrence, the oldest of Henrietta’s children, dropped out of school to take care of Sonny, Deborah, and Joe. At sixteen, Lawrence got himself a voter registration card that said he was eighteen. This helped him get into pool halls when he wanted a break—but it also got him drafted into the army to fight in the Korean War....
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The day Rebecca Skloot met Henrietta’s cousin Cootie, he explained that the Lacks family rarely spoke about illnesses or the dead. People knew about Henrietta’s cells, but they no longer said much about Henrietta herself. As he put it, "...her cells done lived longer than her memory.”
Cootie sent Rebecca to speak with another cousin, Cliff, who had been like a brother to Henrietta when they were children. Cliff gave Rebecca a tour of the home-house, which was now unoccupied and falling down from disuse. He also took her to the graveyard where most of the Lacks family was buried. A few of the graves had stones, but most, like Henrietta’s, were unmarked. Cliff found the stone for...
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In the mid-1950s, a researcher named Chester Southam began to worry that HeLa cells might be able to infect researchers with cancer. He was not sure whether cancer was even contagious in this way, so to find out, he began injecting small samples of HeLa into the arms of cancer patients. Some of these patients fought off the foreign cells; others developed tumors. Later, Southam performed similar research on prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary, all of whose bodies fought off the cancer cells quickly.
At the time, it was not legally required for doctors to obtain consent from patients used in medical research. Over a period of several years, Southam injected over 600 patients...
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In the 1960s, HeLa seemed to be everywhere. Scientists had learned a great deal about keeping cells alive in culture, and now they could do so easily. It was so easy, in fact, that amateurs could order HeLa through Scientific American magazine and grow the cells at home.
HeLa even made it to outer space. Both NASA and the Russian Space Program sent HeLa cells into orbit to study the effects of zero-gravity conditions and higher radiation levels on human cells. Studies showed that normal human cells grew normally in orbit, but that the cancerous HeLa cells multiplied more rapidly than ever.
By the 1960s, scientists had observed that most normal cell lines died...
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When Deborah Lacks got pregnant at age sixteen, her brother’s wife Bobbette insisted she graduate from high school anyway. Bobbette cared for the baby herself while Deborah attended a school for teenage mothers. Then, after Deborah graduated, Bobbette made her get a job and learn to support herself.
During this period, Deborah’s two older brothers were doing well for themselves. Lawrence, the eldest Lacks boy and Bobbette’s husband, owned his own shop. Sonny had earned his high school diploma, and now he was in the air force.
Joe, the youngest Lacks sibling and the one who had experienced the most severe physical abuse in childhood, had by far the most problems....
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The field of biological cell research was shaken up at a conference in Pennsylvania in 1966. Stanley Gartler, a geneticist who had previously been unknown in the field, explained to the gathering of scientists that he had found a genetic marker called G6PD-A in eighteen separate human cell lines that were commonly used in research. This had surprised him because G6PD-A was very rare, and because it was only found in African Americans. He had researched the origins of these cell lines and found that while some were purportedly from Caucasians, at least one, HeLa, came from a black woman. His best guess was that scientists had accidentally contaminated almost all of their human cell lines with HeLa...
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Rebecca Skloot returned to the Holiday Inn in Baltimore on New Year’s Day in 2000. Sonny Lacks had promised to meet her, so she awaited him in the hotel lobby. He was two hours late, but he showed up. When he arrived, he grinned and joked about how persistent she was.
Sonny took Rebecca to see the person he called “the Big Kahuna”—Henrietta’s first-born son, Lawrence. When they arrived at a red brick house, Sonny laughed and said:
This is where we take scientists and reporters wanting to know about our mother. It’s where the family gangs up on them.
When Rebecca got out of the car, Sonny drove away. She hesitated on...
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In 1970, when George Gey was 71 years old, he experienced a sudden and extreme attack of fatigue. A few days later, he learned that he had pancreatic cancer. Doctors needed to operate immediately. Gey asked the surgeons to take a sample of his tumor for his lab; he hoped this sample would give rise to a new immortal line of cells like Henrietta’s.
During Gey’s surgery, his staff stood by in his lab, ready to begin growing their boss’s tumor in culture. But when the surgeons cut into his body, they saw that the cancer was far more widespread than they had previously believed. It was inoperable, and they were afraid to cut into it at all lest they kill Gey by accident. When Gey...
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In 1973, Bobbette Lacks, the wife of Henrietta’s son Lawrence, went to a friend’s house for lunch. The friend’s brother-in-law, who happened to work at the National Cancer Institute, commented that this was the first time he had met a real live person named Lacks. He had only heard the name Lacks because of Henrietta Lacks, the source of the HeLa cells.
Bobbette was stunned when her new acquaintance said that he worked with living cells from Henrietta Lacks, a woman who had died of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s. When Bobbette said that Henrietta was her mother-in-law, the man was excited—but Bobbette was horrified. She had grown up in Baltimore, where she...
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In the mid-1970s, the HeLa contamination problem once again made the cells an important news topic. Michael Rogers, a young journalist for Rolling Stone, decided to track down the Lackses and interview them. On his way to their home, he got into a car accident. Much later, Deborah would say that Henrietta’s spirit had caused this accident to protect her family.
Rogers made it through, however, and he arrived at the Lacks home expecting to ask questions. The Lackses wanted answers instead. According to Rogers,
They truly had no idea what was going on, and they really wanted to understand. But doctors just took blood samples without...
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On the other side of the country, around the time the Lackses found out about Henrietta’s cells being sold for profit, a white man named John Moore was diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors at UCLA removed his spleen, and Moore signed a consent form stating that the hospital could “dispose of [it] by cremation.” For several years after this operation, Moore flew frequently from his home in Seattle to a hospital in Los Angeles for what he believed were follow-up appointments. Eventually he got annoyed at all the traveling and informed his doctor, David Golde, that he wanted to see a physician closer to home. Golde offered to pay for Moore’s flights and lodging if he would continue coming to...
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Life went on for the Lacks family. Deborah remarried. Lawrence went on running his store. Sonny got arrested for selling drugs. Zakariyya, the youngest son formerly known as Joe, was released from prison early, but he still struggled with anger issues and found it difficult to hold down a job.
Zakariyya lived on the streets, refusing all offers of financial help from his father. Zakariyya blamed Day for the HeLa disaster, and also for the years of abuse he suffered in childhood. To earn money and a place to sleep, Zakariyya ended up enlisting himself as a voluntary research subject at Johns Hopkins.
In 1985, the family learned of a newly published book about HeLa...
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In 1984, a scientist finally found a probable cause for Henrietta’s cancer. He discovered a new strain of a sexually transmitted disease called Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and found that HeLa cells tested positive for it. This strain of HPV switched off a gene in Henrietta’s chromosomes that normally suppresses tumor growth. Research into this and other strains of HPV, which affects about 90 percent of all adults who are sexually active, increased understanding of cervical cancer and also led to the development of an HPV vaccine.
However, no scientist has ever been able to explain why Henrietta’s cancer was so virulent, nor why it grew so well in culture. Since the 1950s,...
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In the 1990s, Henrietta finally began to receive respectful attention for her contribution to medical science. A BBC producer heard about her story and began to shoot a documentary about her life. Around that same time, the scientist Roland Patillo hosted a medical conference in Henrietta’s honor and invited the family to make an appearance. Deborah and the other Lackses were pleased by these developments.
The BBC documentary brought Henrietta’s story to the attention of Courtney Speed, the grocery store owner in Turner Station. With the help of a sociologist named Barbary Wyche, Speed began efforts to build a Henrietta Lacks museum, complete with a wax statue of her. To raise...
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Rebecca Skloot obtained Deborah’s phone number from Roland Pattillo just a few weeks after Deborah’s panic attack. Deborah spoke with Rebecca once on the phone, then got spooked and refused to do an interview for almost a year. During that time, Rebecca pursued interviews with other family members but kept trying to get through to Deborah.
About ten months after the two women first spoke, Deborah called Rebecca and said she would do an interview under two conditions. First, Rebecca had to promise she would get Henrietta’s name right in her book. Second, Rebecca must research Elsie Lacks and include Elsie’s story in her book. When Rebecca agreed to both conditions, Deborah said,...
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When Deborah returned to Rebecca's hotel the following day, she did not acknowledge the fact that she had run out in a panic the night before. Instead she suggested a visit to Zakariyya. Rebecca was hesitant; she knew that Zakariyya had violent tendencies, and that he was very angry about HeLa. Deborah said she was “pretty sure” he was ready to talk. She advised Rebecca to be respectful and to pronounce Zakarriya’s name zuh-CAR-ee-uh, as he preferred.
At the assisted-living facility where Zakarriya was allowed to live due to hearing and vision problems, he at first refused to speak. He sat on a bench outside, eating ice cream and reading advertisements, as if Rebecca was not even...
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Soon after her first long visit with Rebecca, Deborah was advised by a stranger, a black man, who said she should not talk to a white reporter about Henrietta. He said that only a black person could be trusted to tell the story properly. He nearly convinced Deborah, but soon she decided that he was wrong:
Racism! Racism! …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…It’s not about punish the doctors or slander the hospital. I don’t want that.
Deborah remained skittish, but she kept granting Rebecca interviews. In exchange, Rebecca...
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Rebecca invited the whole Lacks family to tour Cristoph Lengauer’s cancer lab at Johns Hopkins, but only Deborah and Zakarriya agreed to go. Day was ill and Sonny had to work. Lawrence, for his part, was fed up with hearing about HeLa.
When Christoph welcomed Deborah and Zakarriya, he acknowledged how difficult it must be for them to come to the hospital given all they went through. He took them first to a freezer room to show how HeLa cells were stored. He explained that researchers had to be careful to prevent HeLa from contaminating other cell cultures, and he was pleasantly surprised when Deborah knew a bit about this issue. He commented that the contamination problem had been...
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The day after seeing Henrietta’s cells, Rebecca and Deborah set out to learn what had happened to Elsie Lacks. They drove to the Crownsville Hospital Center, the site of Elsie’s death. The campus was beautiful and well-groomed, but the main building seemed deserted. Rebecca and Deborah made their way through the empty hallways until they found a room labeled “Medical Records.” Inside, there were only empty shelves.
The women wandered the hallways, looking for answers. Deborah eventually got frustrated and began shouting up and down the halls, demanding to know where to find medical records. A few people popped out of offices and pointed in the right direction.
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After finding out about Elsie, Deborah and Rebecca drove to Clover, Virginia and checked into a hotel. Until this point, Deborah had never allowed Rebecca to look at Henrietta’s medical records, but now she handed them over. She said she was going to sleep, and she went off to her own room.
A few minutes later, Deborah knocked on the door of Rebecca’s room and demanded that they read the records together. The two women sat up into the night as Rebecca sorted the papers. They were crumpled, stained, and out of order. Other legal documents were mixed in among them, as were some of Deborah’s poems.
As Rebecca worked on sorting information, Deborah sat looking at her...
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Next, Rebecca and Deborah drove Clover, Virginia to visit Henrietta’s sister, Gladys. When they arrived, Gladys sat, wearing nothing but a thin nightgown, in a wheelchair next to a hot wood stove. Her dying husband was in the next room, moaning in his bed. Deborah, clearly agitated and covered in hives, made a halting speech to Gladys about everything she had learned.
Soon Gary, Glady’s son and Deborah’s cousin, came into the house. He saw the hives on Deborah’s face and watched her pacing around the room. He looked to Rebecca, who explained that the information about Elsie had upset Deborah badly. Gary was close to Deborah, and he understood her feelings better than most of the...
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The day after Gary’s faith healing, Deborah felt a good deal better. The hives on her face were not quite so bad, but they had not disappeared completely. Her eyes were still uncomfortably swollen. She decided that she should see her doctor, so she set off to drive back to Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Rebecca stayed in Clover. She did not fully understand what she had witnessed the day before, and she wanted to talk to Gary about it. She found him at home changing a light bulb. When she walked in, she recited the words from a hymn he had sung during his spontaneous faith healing. When she confessed that she could not get the song out of her head, he laughed and said, “I know you don’t...
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At the doctor’s office, Deborah learned that her blood pressure and blood sugar were so high they had almost caused a stroke. Erratic behavior, hives, and disjointed speech are all symptoms of these conditions, so these health problems helped to explain her behavior on her research trip. The doctor told Deborah to avoid stress at all cost. For the next several months, she did so.
Rebecca continued her research alone and, for some time, shared only the happy bits with Deborah. Deborah still wanted to speak at the upcoming medical conference in Washington, D.C. and with her doctor’s blessing, she slowly began to prepare for this trip.
Unfortunately, Deborah's personal...
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In 2009, Rebecca Skloot drove to Clover for a visit. She thought the road seemed longer than she remembered, and then she realized that she was driving past the Post Office. She stopped the car and stared in surprise at a field full of rubble that had once been downtown Clover. She picked up some of the pieces, with the intention to give them to Deborah.
In the years since Rebecca had completed her research for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it had begun to feel “like everything related to Henrietta’s history was vanishing.” Gary, Day, and Cootie had already died—and now the whole town of Clover had disappeared, too.
Life went on for Deborah’s...
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In 1951, it was not illegal for doctors to take Henrietta’s cells for research without consent. By 1999, when The Immortal Live of Henrietta Lacks was published, there was still no clear law requiring that patients give consent for the scientific use of their own bodily tissues. In fact, human tissues are still constantly collected and used for research without patients’ knowledge.
“Today most Americans have their tissue on file somewhere,” Rebecca Skloot writes. Nearly any time patients give blood or have any bodily tissue removed, the excess matter is stored away in tissue banks. Very little of this material has any financial worth of its own, but all of the material in combination is extremely useful...
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