Chapter 22 Summary

1970-1973

In 1970, when George Gey was 71 years old, he experienced a sudden and extreme attack of fatigue. A few days later, he learned that he had pancreatic cancer. Doctors needed to operate immediately. Gey asked the surgeons to take a sample of his tumor for his lab; he hoped this sample would give rise to a new immortal line of cells like Henrietta’s.

During Gey’s surgery, his staff stood by in his lab, ready to begin growing their boss’s tumor in culture. But when the surgeons cut into his body, they saw that the cancer was far more widespread than they had previously believed. It was inoperable, and they were afraid to cut into it at all lest they kill Gey by accident. When Gey woke up a few hours later and learned that they had not removed a cell sample, he was livid.

Gey called his friends and colleagues who were doing oncology studies and volunteered himself as a research subject for experimental cancer treatments. He flew all over the country, undergoing a series of experimental treatments, many of which caused terrible suffering. After a few months of this, he died.

About a year after Gey’s death, in 1971, two of his former colleagues published an article about his life’s work in a small medical journal for doctors. While conducting research for this article, they discovered that Henrietta Lacks’s original tumor had been misdiagnosed as a different kind of cancer than it really was. There was little consequence to this discovery; she would have received the same treatment in either case. They published this new fact in the article along with Henrietta’s real name, but only a small population of cancer researchers ever read it.

Around this time, President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, resolving to fund studies and ultimately find a cure within five years. Researchers leapt to the challenge, but their work was hindered by the fact that they had not yet solved the HeLa contamination problem. The media eventually found out about this and began publishing scathing attacks on scientists who were wasting money conducting research on the wrong cells.

During this media storm, most newspapers referred to the woman behind HeLa as Helen Larson or Helen Lane, a name they presumably found in old articles. Eventually a biologist named J. Douglas wrote a letter to Nature in which he pointed out that the name was recorded differently in different sources. He asked readers to tell him which was correct. Soon he received a letter from Howard Jones of Johns Hopkins University, telling him that the cells came from Henrietta Lacks.