Chapter 24 Summary

1975

In the mid-1970s, the HeLa contamination problem once again made the cells an important news topic. Michael Rogers, a young journalist for Rolling Stone, decided to track down the Lackses and interview them. On his way to their home, he got into a car accident. Much later, Deborah would say that Henrietta’s spirit had caused this accident to protect her family.

Rogers made it through, however, and he arrived at the Lacks home expecting to ask questions. The Lackses wanted answers instead. According to Rogers,

They truly had no idea what was going on, and they really wanted to understand. But doctors just took blood samples without explaining anything and left the family worrying.

Rogers did his best to explain, and he sent copies of his article when it was published. When the Lackses read it, they learned that vials of Henrietta’s cells were being sold around the world for $25. Until this point, only Deborah had been very worried about the HeLa cells. Now the male Lackses became convinced that George Gey had stolen Henrietta’s cells and used them to make money. This infuriated them.

In truth, there is no record that George Gey ever made even a penny from HeLa. His interest was in research, not in profit, and he gave HeLa away freely. However, businesses like Microbiological Associates made enormous profits off of HeLa cells, and the U.S. patent office has issued over seventeen thousand patents for inventions pertaining to HeLa.

The Lackses knew none of this; they only knew that their mother’s cells were being used for profit by people who were not their family. They wrote up a flier about the issue and began handing it out at Lawrence’s store. They did not know what else to do.

Deborah did not share her father and brothers’ interest in monetary compensation; she just wanted to know what had happened to her mother. She bought herself books and began teaching herself basic science. But she struggled to understand, and everything she read seemed horrifying. When she read about research on HeLa, she continued to imagine that her mother was somehow experiencing pain and suffering as scientists exposed the cells to diseases, radiation, and other frightening things. During this period, Deborah grew extremely annoyed that the media continued to claim the cells came from a woman named Helen Lane.

Meanwhile, McKusick and Hsu published information about the Lacks family’s genetic information in an obscure scientific journal. Today it would be illegal to publish recognizable genetic information, but at the time it was not. The Lackses could have sued because they were not informed about what was being done with their blood, or because the doctors had not respected their privacy—but the Lackses had no idea what the doctors had done, or that the article had even been published.