Chapter 7 Summary

1951

In 1951, not long after Henrietta began her cancer treatments, George Gey appeared in a television interview to talk about his research. He made a brief explanation of how cells were structured and how they became cancerous. Then he held up a bottle of cancer cells—probably Henrietta’s—and said that he hoped to cure cancer someday. At the time, he was already beginning to send HeLa cells to scientists around the world, and scientists were beginning to learn from them by exposing them to toxins, radiation, and infections. In the interview, Gey did not mention Henrietta Lacks by name, but it is unlikely that the public would have paid much attention if he had.

In the 1950s, most members of the public had a negative opinion of laboratory cell cultures. This had been caused by the highly public work of a French scientist named Alexis Carrel. Carrel was a surgeon who had won a Nobel prize for his research on suturing blood vessels, thus paving the way for organ transplants. He dreamed of growing organs for transplant in laboratories, outside the body, and in 1912 he began work in that direction by growing a piece of chicken heart tissue in a lab.

The public was fascinated by Carrel’s chicken heart, and many believed it might pave the way for organ transplants that extended human life indefinitely. Carrel himself was interested in extending human life—but he was a racist who believed immortality should only be available to intelligent, educated white people. He dreamed of becoming the dictator of a small country, and he stated publicly that the provision for equality in the United States Constitution was a bad idea. “The feeble-minded and the man of genius should not be equal before the law,” he said.

Carrel’s chicken heart never brought about the scientific advances anyone thought it would, and it soon fell out of public favor. Its biggest effect on the world was inspiring the horror movie The Blob, about an immortal chicken heart that grew out of control until it took over the streets and destroyed everything in its path.

Late in Carrel’s life, scientists discovered that his chicken heart was not immortal at all. Intentionally or unintentionally, Carrel had been adding new living cells to his culture every time he “fed” the heart with a mixture of ground-up chicken tissue. By that time, Carrel and his chicken heart had poisoned public opinion of cell culture. Because of him, the public connected the scientific cell growth and experimentation with racist ideas, scary stories, and unfulfilled dreams.