We first meet Henrietta Lacks, a young African American mother of five, at Johns Hopkins Hospital on January 29, 1951. After experiencing pelvic pain and abnormal bleeding for more than a year, she and her husband drive nearly twenty miles from their home to the hospital in Baltimore, as it is one of the few locations at the time that treats black patients. Hopkins, which was built as a charity hospital for the sick and poor in 1889, is segregated; Henrietta sees Dr. Howard Jones, the gynecologist on duty, in a “colored-only” exam room. Dr. Jones finds a tumor on her cervix.
After her exam at Hopkins, Henrietta receives a diagnosis of stage I epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. At the time of her diagnosis, Dr. Richard TeLinde, a Hopkins gynecologist and one of the leading experts on cervical cancer at the time, was researching new ways to detect and treat the disease. To test his hypotheses, he needs to study samples of cancerous cells from patients. He enlists George Gey, the intelligent, driven, yet slightly reckless, head of tissue research at the hospital, to help him harvest some of her cervical cells and put them under a microscope.
Meanwhile, Gey was working on his own project: trying to grow the first “immortal” human cells—ones that would continually reproduce themselves outside of the body. These cells could be used for any type of research on human cells that wouldn’t be possible on a living person, such as finding a cure for cancer.
Over the course of Henrietta’s treatment, surgeons remove a small piece of her normal cervical tissue and a piece from her tumor—without her knowledge or permission—and give them to Gey who, with the help of his lab assistant, Mary Kubicek, transfer the material into a culture for them to grow.
At the time, the medical community considers a patient’s “participation” in medical research as a fair trade for free healthcare. While her healthy cells die soon after, her cancerous cells continue to duplicate every twenty-four hours. Amazed that he may have grown the first immortal human cells, Gey eagerly shares samples of Henrietta’s cells with his colleagues. Before long, Henrietta’s cells are in labs all over the world. Researchers can conduct experiments on them to see how human cells will react to difficult treatment methods.
While Henrietta bravely endures her treatments and continues to care for her children, she grows weaker and her pain intensifies. Doctors discover her cancer has spread throughout her body; little can be done, except try to ease her pain.
According to a colleague, Gey visits Henrietta in the hospital not long before her death and tells her that her cells will make her immortal. She replies that she is glad some good will come of her suffering. On October 4, 1951, less than a year after her diagnosis, Henrietta dies.
Before Henrietta’s diagnosis, she had lived an average life. She was raised by her maternal grandfather, Tommy Lacks, in Clover, Virginia, where her ancestors had been slaves and the family still worked on tobacco farms. Henrietta grew close to her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks, who also lived with Tommy. Henrietta attended school through the sixth grade, while Day went through the fourth grade. Like all of the Lacks children, they left school young because their family needed their help in the fields.
Their relationship deepened and they had a son, Lawrence, and a daughter, Elsie, who was epileptic and had intellectual disabilities. Henrietta and Day married in August of 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor just months later, the family moved to Turner Station, a small black community just outside Baltimore, so Day could take a job at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point steel mill. With steel in great demand for the war effort, Day’s new job was lucrative compared to his old work in the tobacco fields. Henrietta found friends in their new town and was loved by many. She was kind, fun, beautiful, caring, and always helped those in need.
In 1999, author Rebecca Skloot, who learned about the HeLa cells in a community college biology class, first tries reaching out to Henrietta’s family. After an initial enthusiastic response from Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, Skloot is stonewalled by Day Lacks and is stood up by Henrietta’s son Sonny. Skloot also visits Clover and finds the once-bustling town is poverty-stricken, run down, and sparsely populated.
Need to Know: The book’s first section gives us a glimpse of who Henrietta is as a person—information long ignored or forgotten by the scientific community that has worked with her cells for decades. As a wife and mother, Henrietta always puts her family first, even through her illness.
Racial prejudice is felt in every step of Henrietta’s life and medical treatment—beginning with her first visit to Hopkins when she is segregated into the “colored-only” waiting and exam rooms. The treatment of African Americans by white doctors since the time of slavery and the resulting distrust of doctors and hospitals in Henrietta’s...