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A great scientist and contributor to research on cancer, George Gey died, ironically, of pancreatic cancer. At the time of his death in 1970, there was no chemotherapy for cancer; it was just a death sentence to anyone who contracted it.
In another irony, Dr. Gey had long sought in his research to find cancer cells that were immortal; that is, those that would continue to reproduce indefinitely under laboratory conditions. So when Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, entered John Hopkins hospital (which was the only hospital around accepting blacks) complaining of bleeding, she was later examined and found to have cervical cancer, a discovery that would enable Gey to advance his research. For, while she was in the hospital, Dr. Gey obtained a tissue sample from her before she died, as permission to do so was not needed in 1951. This tissue sample proved invaluable because it contained just what Gey had been seeking: immortal cells. So, thanks to Ms. Lacks, advancements in cancer research were made by Dr. Gey as he conducted much researched with cells in vitro.
Gey's obituary extols his technical skills as well as his dedication to finding a cure for cancer:
Dr. Gey ...foresaw the combination of research, teaching, and expertise on cellular phenomena as an indispensable requirement for future progress in the health sciences.
A very distinguished investigator, Dr. Gey founded the Tissue Culture Commission in 1947, the Tissue Culture Course in 1948, and the Tissue Culture Association in 1950. He was a giant in cancer research.
George Gey worked at the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University and was made somewhat famous in the book, The Imortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The book concerns some of the ethical issues around donor tissue as well as medical practices in the 1950s. Tissue sample from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks was given to Gey and used for cancer research. He grew her cells into what has been referred to as an immortalized human cell line.
His life time dedicated to cancer research ended with a note of bitter irony after his pancreatic cancer metastasized to his lymph nodes, lungs and heart making them inoperable he was unable to convince his doctors to take tissue from his liver to use in research.
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