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 4 Summary

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1951

When Henrietta Lacks’s cells arrived in George Gey's lab, his assistant, Mary Kubicek, was eating a sandwich. It was her job to handle new cell samples, but today she dawdled a while before beginning. These attempts to grow immortal human cells always took hours of tedious work, and thus far, they had always failed.

In spite of its failures, George Gey’s lab was state of the art for its time. Gey's wife, Margaret, had been instrumental in helping to overcome some of the most difficult obstacles to growing cells in culture. The first of these was that nobody knew exactly which ingredients were necessary in the liquid used for feeding cells. Slowly, over the course of years, the Geys had developed a recipe that included an array of ghastly ingredients:

the plasma of chickens, puree of calf fetuses, special salts, and blood from human umbilical cords.

Since they worked at a hospital, it was relatively easy to come by the cord blood. The rest of the ingredients were harder to procure, and George frequently visited slaughterhouses for cow fetuses and chicken blood. It was Margaret who developed the proper technique for sterilizing the chicken chest and shoving a syringe into its heart to obtain the blood; and it was Margaret who plucked and cooked the chickens if they happened to die from the stress of this procedure.

Margaret Gey was also responsible for maintaining sterility in Gey’s lab. She had been trained as a surgical nurse, and she brought the sterilization procedures from surgery rooms into the lab environment. The successful growth of the HeLa cells would not have been possible otherwise.

When Mary Kubicek started working on Henrietta Lacks's cells, she followed Margaret's sterility procedures to the letter. She sterilized her work station with hot steam before donning a clean surgical gown, mask, and gloves. When these preparations were finished, Mary entered the station and sliced the pieces of Henrietta’s healthy and cancerous cervical tissue into tiny pieces. She dropped them into test tubes prepared with chicken blood clots, and wrote HeLa, for Henrietta Lacks, on the side of the tubes. Finally, she deposited them in the incubator.

George Gey was a “reckless visionary” and an extremely hard worker. He came from a poor family but worked his way through college and medical school doing construction work. A gifted mechanic, he built much of his own equipment, including a slowly spinning drum that kept the liquid in his tissue samples moving at about the rate of human bodily fluids. 

On the day Henrietta Lacks’s first treatment was finished, Mary Kubicek checked the cell culture and thought that nothing was happening. Two days after that, she noticed a substance “like little rings of cooked egg white” in some of the tubes. At first she was not excited; other cells had grown a while and died. But soon Henrietta’s cancer cells were growing so quickly that they had to be divided into more tubes, and divided again, and again.

Eventually George Gey began telling colleagues that his lab had succeeded: they had grown immortal human cells. They asked if they could use some cells for their own work—and he said yes.

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