The main point of this section is what happens to Henrietta’s cells after she dies, and how they become HeLa.
Chapters 12-22 are Part II, the section titled “Death.” Actually, this section refers to what happens to Henrietta’s cells after she dies. George Gey gets permission from Henrietta’s husband to get an autopsy to get more information about her cells. He needs more tissue samples. She was already a hot commodity.
Tissue culturists around the world had been trying to create a library of immortal cells like Henrietta’s, and Gey wanted samples from as many organs in her body as possible, to see if they’d grow like HeLa. (Ch. 12)
When asked, Day refused at first. He wanted to have a funeral. Yet they pressured him into doing an autopsy anyway, saying they would leave her looking presentable.
A polio epidemic broke out in 1951, and a vaccine needed to be developed. They had to be tested on human cells. Gey used the HeLa cells. Soon they were also used to study syphilis and cancer, as well as other diseases. They were very successful. Soon, people were curious and even though the scientists tried to keep Henrietta’s name out of it, it was leaked (incorrectly). Eventually, the pseudonym Helen L. was used.
This section also includes what happened to Henrietta’s children, who had a difficult life. Her oldest son Lawrence dropped out of school to take care of the children and lied about his age so that at 16 he got drafted into the Korean War. That left the other children with Henrietta’s cousin Ethel, who forced them to work in the tobacco fields and was abusive.
A researcher named Chester Southam tried to find out if cancer was contagious by injecting Ohio State Penitentiary inmates with it. Some developed tumors. In 1966 a researcher named Stanley Gartler proved that all of the cell lines scientists had been studying actually came from Henrietta Lacks, even though they thought that they were not. Scientists realized that they needed to find Henrietta’s family so that they could tell whether a cell they were studying was really from her.
The family had never benefitted from HeLa. Skloot interviewed Lawrence, and realized the family had never been told what Henrietta’s cells were doing, in addition to never being asked, and never benefitting financially.
“Her cells growin big as the world, cover round the whole earth,” he said, his eyes tearing as he waved his arms in the air, making a planet around him. “That’s kinda weird … They just steady growin and growin, steady fightin off whatever they fightin off.” (Ch. 21)
Lawrence is clearly proud. He says that his mother’s cells are a miracle. But he is annoyed too, because his mother was used, and he was used, saying, “nobody tells us nothing.” His own family has serious medical problems, for which they are not getting help. John Hopkins sold Henrietta’s body, as they saw it.
“You know what is a myth?” Bobbette snapped from the recliner. “Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.” (Ch. 21)
Ironically, Dr. Gey died of cancer. He wanted a sample taken, hoping that he could take a culture and do the same thing with his cells that he had done with Henrietta’s. Surgeons refused because the cancer had spread further than they thought. Dr. Gey died. Around this time, Henrietta’s tumor was diagnosed properly, and an article was published with her real name.