portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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Chapter 3 Summary

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In 1951, the Johns Hopkins gynecologist Howard Jones and his boss, Richard Wesley TeLinde, were working hard to develop and improve methods for treating cervical cancer. At the time, doctors had just begun to use the Pap smear test to screen women for cancer. However, there was widespread misinformation and disagreement about what to do with the information from the screenings. Among other things, doctors disagreed about which tests indicated cancer, and about whether doctors should leave some cancers alone or treat all of them with invasive surgical procedures.

Because of the lack of information about cervical cancer, healthy women were sometimes accidentally diagnosed with cervical cancer. In such cases, doctors often performed a hysterectomy—the surgical removal of the uterus—on a perfectly healthy woman. Meanwhile, women with cancer often got passed over for surgery, either because their doctors failed to recognize cancer cells when they saw them, or because they had a doctor who believed certain cervical carcinomas were not dangerous.

TeLinde wanted to improve cancer treatment, both to minimize unnecessary hysterectomies and to prove that all women with cervical carcinomas needed invasive treatment. To this end, he used information and tissue samples, without consent, from women who came to Johns Hopkins for treatment. At the time, this was a common practice.

TeLinde wanted to grow and compare living samples of healthy and cancerous cervical tissue. To this end, he enlisted the help of George Gey, the scientist in charge of tissue culture at Johns Hopkins. Gey was happy to help TeLinde in exchange for a steady supply of cervical tissue samples from TeLinde’s patients. Gey wanted to use these samples to grow

the first immortal human cells: a continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample.

Howard Jones found out that Henrietta’s tumor was malignant on February 5, 1951. He informed Henrietta immediately, but she did not tell anyone the diagnosis. She only said that she needed to go to the hospital for a few days for some treatment. Day dropped her off at Johns Hopkins the following day. There she signed a form that gave Johns Hopkins doctors permission “to perform any operative procedures…that they may deem necessary.”

After checking into the hospital, Henrietta underwent a myriad of tests. The doctors prescribed the best known treatment for her condition, which involved the use of “radium, a white radioactive metal that glows an eerie blue.” But before beginning this treatment, the doctor performing Henrietta’s operation cut two small pieces of tissue from her cervix—one sample of healthy tissue, and one of the tumor. Shortly afterward, the tissue was taken to Gey’s lab, where Gey and his assistants planned to try to use them to grow more cells. Gey received them with excitement, as he always did. But the scientists and technicians who worked with him “were sure Henrietta’s cells would die just like all the others.”

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Chapter 2 Summary


Chapter 4 Summary