Chapter 6 Summary

1999

It was not until 1999, eleven years after she first heard of HeLa cells, that Rebecca Skloot found some papers from a gathering called “The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium.” She called Roland Pattillo, a professor of gynecology who had organized the symposium.

On the phone, Pattillo admitted to Rebecca that he knew the Lacks family. However, he said flat-out that he was not eager to put her into contact with them. For over an hour, he pressured her to explain why she wanted to research Henrietta Lacks. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are white,” said Pattillo, who was African American.

Pattillo demanded that Rebecca explain what she knew about the historical relationship between African Americans and science in the United States. As if delivering “an oral report…in history class,” Rebecca told him several stories about medical science’s exploitation and mistreatment of African Americans. She began with the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which doctors allowed syphilitic black men to suffer and die in the name of research, even after discovering that penicillin could cure them.

Rebecca called Pattillo every day for three days before he gave her a phone number for Deborah Lacks. With it came a litany of advice:

Don’t be aggressive. Do be honest. Don’t be clinical, don’t try to force her into anything, don’t talk down to her, she hates that. Do be compassionate, don’t forget she’s been through a lot with these cells, do have patience.

Rebecca called Deborah immediately. On the phone, she explained that she wanted to write a book about Henrietta Lacks because the world should know about the woman behind the HeLa cells. To her surprise, Deborah’s immediate response was that “a book would be great!”

Rebecca was afraid to ruin her chances by saying anything wrong, so she simply listened as Deborah talked for forty-five minutes. Deborah...

(The entire section is 544 words.)