The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 23 Summary
by Rebecca Skloot

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Chapter 23 Summary

1973–1974

In 1973, Bobbette Lacks, the wife of Henrietta’s son Lawrence, went to a friend’s house for lunch. The friend’s brother-in-law, who happened to work at the National Cancer Institute, commented that this was the first time he had met a real live person named Lacks. He had only heard the name Lacks because of Henrietta Lacks, the source of the HeLa cells.

Bobbette was stunned when her new acquaintance said that he worked with living cells from Henrietta Lacks, a woman who had died of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s. When Bobbette said that Henrietta was her mother-in-law, the man was excited—but Bobbette was horrified. She had grown up in Baltimore, where she had long heard stories about doctors at Johns Hopkins kidnapping Black people for gruesome research. Moreover, she had just read about what was then a brand-new scandal—the Tuskegee syphilis studies and their exploitation of Black patients. To Bobbette, it seemed that these terrible stories were coming true in her own family. If some mad scientist was experimenting on part of Henrietta somewhere, would he come after Henrietta’s children and grandchildren next?

Back home, Bobbette told Lawrence what she had heard. He did not know what to think, and he wondered if somebody had robbed his mother’s grave. He called Johns Hopkins hospital and said, “I’m calling about my mother, Henrietta Lacks—you got some of her alive in there.” The hospital’s receptionist had no idea what he meant and eventually hung up. He did not know who else to call.

That was the year researchers decided to develop a test for the major genetic markers in HeLa cells so that researchers could test cell lines and make sure that they were not accidentally growing HeLa when they wanted other cells instead. Victor McKusick, one of the lead researchers involved in this work, asked a younger colleague named Susan Hsu to get blood samples for genetic research from Henrietta’s family.

Susan Hsu, a recent arrival from China, called Day and asked him to gather his family so she could draw everyone’s blood. Between her strong Chinese accent and his thick southern drawl, they did not understand each other very well. Hsu assumed that the Lackses already knew all about Henrietta’s cells, whereas Day assumed that he had to do what Hsu asked because she was a doctor. Years before, when Day had agreed to allow a partial autopsy on Henrietta’s body, researchers had told him it would help Henrietta’s children if they ever developed cancer. Because of this, Day deduced that Hsu wanted to do a cancer test.

The male Lackses were not overly concerned about the blood test, but Deborah was...

(The entire section is 698 words.)