Chapter 1 Summary

1951

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.”