Chapter 14 Summary

1953-1954

As HeLa cells helped scientists make several breakthroughs in medicine, the public became curious about the human being behind those cells. George Gey wanted Henrietta Lacks’s name to remain confidential from the public, but many researchers and assistants already knew who she was. Soon one of them leaked Henrietta’s name to the press. The Minneapolis Star published an article, incorrectly revealing the name of the source of the HeLa cells as Henrietta Lakes. 

Not long after this story appeared, Gey received inquiries from a magazine writer named Roland H. Berg who wanted to do a human interest story about “Mrs. Lakes” and her family. George Gey's first reaction was to suggest focusing only on the science, but Berg wanted to include a human interest angle.

At the time, patient confidentiality was protected by custom, but not by law, so there was no absolute need to keep Henrietta's identity private. Gey and TeLinde discussed the matter privately in a series of letters. In these letters, TeLinde advised following the custom and withholding further information about Henrietta from the public:

I can see no point in running the risk of getting into trouble by disclosing [confidential information].

Ultimately, Gey wrote to Berg and suggested the use of “a fictitious name” for the woman behind the HeLa cells. Berg never followed through on his plan to write an article. However, several months later, a reporter named Bill Davidson for Collier’s magazine contacted Gey about a similar idea. He wrote a piece about the cell culture and its developments. In it, he wrote that the cells came from someone named “Helen L.” whose cancerous tissue was taken from her body after she died. 

Nobody knows for certain who chose “Helen L.” as a pseudonym for Henrietta Lacks. What is known is that George Gey read this article before it was published, correcting several inaccuracies but leaving the false name and the detail about taking the sample during the autopsy. It seems certain that this was a deliberate choice on his part, but there is no written record explaining exactly why. Decades later, Margaret Gey claimed that the choice was not deliberate at all. “It was just that somebody got confused,” she said.

After the publication of the Collier’s article and until the 1970s, the human source of the HeLa cells was almost always called “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson” in print. Because of this, Henrietta’s own family did not learn about HeLa cells and their importance to science for more than twenty years.