The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary
by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, journalist Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were harvested for research.

  • Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer, and her cells were harvested by doctors without her knowledge or consent.
  • HeLa, the immortal cell line created from Henrietta’s cells, led to many groundbreaking scientific discoveries, but the Lacks family did not know about this until much later. 
  • When Skloot began researching Henrietta, she explained the science of HeLa cells to the family and was able to piece together Henrietta’s story.

Summary

Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class she took to fulfill a requirement for her high school diploma. Her professor didn't know anything about Henrietta Lacks, and neither did anyone else, Skloot learned. While studying toward an MFA in nonfiction writing, Skloot decided to try writing the story of Henrietta Lacks. She jumps back in forth in time to tell this story, setting the book variously in the 1950s and the 2000s, with many digressions in between to explore how HeLa cells changed science forever.

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19201950

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the eighth of ten children in a poor Black family. In 1924, Henrietta's mother died. Her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia, where he divvied up the children between relatives. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather Tommy Lacks in a small four-room cabin affectionately known as "home-house." Henrietta shared a bed with her cousin Day Lacks, with whom she pursued a sexual relationship. At the age of fourteen, Henrietta gave birth to her first child, Lawrence. Four years later, Henrietta had Lucile, nicknamed Elsie, an epileptic with severe mental handicaps. Henrietta and Day attempted to raise Elsie on their own without any form of medical assistance, later adding a third child, Sonny, to their family.

19511999

In 1951, Henrietta gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter, Deborah. Shortly after the birth, she felt a pain in her womb and suspected that something was wrong. Her friends and cousins advised her to talk to a doctor, but Henrietta had a deep distrust of the medical profession and hated going to Johns Hopkins, where, having little more than a sixth grade education, she couldn't really understand what was going on and felt as though her doctors were speaking another language. Henrietta didn't follow up on that pain until after the birth of her fifth child, Joe. After finding a lump near her cervix, she at last went to a doctor. Howard Jones, a gynecologist at Johns Hopkins, confirmed there was indeed a tumor the size of a grape on Henrietta's cervix. He recommended radium to shrink the tumor. Jones and his boss Richard TeLinde were interested in developing new treatments for cancer, so they took samples of both Henrietta's healthy and cancerous cells—without bothering to get consent, because, back then, doctors weren't required to get consent to harvest cells from patients. Without Henrietta's knowledge or approval, TeLinde enlisted the help of George Gey, a visionary scientist who wanted to create a line of immortal cells. Thus far, Gey had failed; but that all changed when Henrietta Lacks' cells arrived in Gey's lab.

While Henrietta was undergoing cancer treatments, Gey and his assistant Mary Kubicek went about growing Henrietta's cells in the lab. Having failed so many times, Mary didn't have high hopes—but then the cancer cells started dividing. And dividing, and dividing. Gey had succeeded in creating the first and most important line of immortal cells in history: HeLa. The key to their success, as it turned out, was George Gey's wife Margaret: her sterilization techniques, inspired by her extensive training as a surgical nurse, provided the clean research equipment necessary to grow the cells. She and Gey had also developed a recipe for feeding the cells, using the plasma of chickens, puree of calf fetuses,...

(The entire section is 2,459 words.)