Chapter 12 Summary

1951

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 funeral.

Gey sent his assistant Mary to assist with the autopsy. At the time, she had worked with human cell tissue for years, but she had never seen an actual dead body. She fought the urge to vomit as she watched the doctor slice Henrietta open and remove samples of her major organs. Afterward, while the doctor was sewing up his incisions, Mary noticed the chipped red nail polish on Henrietta’s toes. Suddenly it struck her that the Henrietta Lacks was “a real person.” HeLa cells, which Mary had helped to grow, were already becoming important in laboratories all over the world—but this was the first moment when Mary thought of Henrietta as a human being.

Henrietta’s body was taken back to Clover in a pine box. Rain poured down outside as she was transported to the home-house. Out back, her cousins dug her a grave. The small Lacks graveyard was already overcrowded with unmarked graves, so the men repeatedly hit other people’s coffins and had to start over. Eventually they found a spot that was not already occupied.

For several days, Henrietta’s body was left on display in the home-house. Family members and neighbors visited to pay respects. Sadie cried when she noticed the chipped red toenails. She knew that Henrietta would never have allowed her nail polish job to wear out that badly unless she had been feeling truly horrible.

Nobody remembers much from Henrietta’s funeral, but the whole family remembers what happened afterward, while the cousins were filling the hole. The sky turned black, and the wind picked up. It tore the roof off a nearby barn, sending it flying over the new grave. Not far away, a cousin’s house was knocked down, and he was killed. Years later, Henrietta’s cousin Peter said, “We shoulda knew she was tryin to tell us somethin with that storm.”