The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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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...

(The entire section is 433 words.)