The book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, by Rebecca Skloot, is 38 chapters long, so I will be writing about 9 chapters in each fourth of the book I summarize about. Therefore, in the few beginning chapters of this book we learn that a woman named Henrietta lacks had a “knot in her womb” shortly after giving birth to her fourth child.
Lacks went to the charity hospital doctor wondering if it was an ectopic pregnancy or an STD since her husband slept around a lot, but it turned out to be a fast growing cancerous sore which the doctor thought was from her untreated gonorrhea and syphilis so he let her go home after taking a biopsy. The story then switches to Lacks’s past for a chapter, and explains what made her who she is today. Henrietta was one of ten children, and her mother died when she was four. This caused her family to go live with their grandfather and her cousins. Henrietta grew, harvested, and sold tobacco with her grandfather which allowed them to make some money, but they were still poor due to how many people they had to take care of. Day was one of her cousins, who she eventually birthed a child with at age 14 and married at age 20.
Due to her syphilis and incest, Elsie, her second child, was born severely epileptic, causing people in town to call her “touched.. In 1941, Pearl Harbor struck, and several cousins in Henrietta’s family were drafted or volunteered, a cousin gave Henrietta and Day all of their money so they could get out of the poverty of tobacco farming and move to a better place in Maryland where she finds her charity hospital, Hopkin’s.
Eventually the doctor discovered Henrietta had stage one cervical cancer that was quickly growing, and since Lacks was at a charity hospital, poor black women were perfect research subjects. The doctor found a man name Gey to help him with his research, so when they started treatment on Henrietta they took samples of the tumor for culture, and sewed radium into the side of her cervix. The cells were taken to be cultured, and Gey’s assistant Mary wasn’t to enthusiastic as all the cells usually died, but Henrietta’s cells or HeLa cells ended up surviving and they would not stop growing. Henrietta continued to do well despite her radium treatments, she didn’t feel sick, meanwhile Gey was sharing her cells with other scientist friends without her knowing. However, Henrietta took her epileptic daughter Elsie to an Insane hospital as it was getting harder and harder for her to take care of her.
Eventually Henrietta had to start xray therapy and she had to tell her family. The therapy caused her to get sicker and she went through more radiation to try to stop it without knowing the treatments were making her infertile. After X-ray therapy Henrietta became very ill and her skin on her stomach turned black from the treatments. The doctors looked into it to find her cancer was spreading and despite more treatments, the cancer become incurable. Henrietta was left in terrible pain and more research cells were taken, only for the cells to die from being so full of toxins. Henrietta eventually died on October 4, 1951, but before so, Gey told her she would be immortal forever without explaining her cells were uncontrollably growing and could not stop. During the time Henrietta was suffering, Gey had gone on national television displaying his discovery with Henrietta’s cells only to start shipping them off worldwide to see how human cells reacted to certain treatments without hurting a living person allowing Gey to make big bucks. The story then switches to the author, Rebecca Skloot’s perspective as she is trying to find Henrietta’s life story.
Skloot goes to one of Gey’s students lectures about HeLa cells in hopes of figuring out more about Henrietta. The meeting leads Skloot to calling Deborah, Henrietta’s last daughter, only to be ignored for a year. Leading Skloot to have to reach out to Day, Henrietta’s husband, only to be denied since he hates bringing up the subject. Skloot decides to go to Henrietta’s old house in hopes of finding something to aid in her book about Henrietta. Skloot meets the Speed’s, a family that know the Lacks but want to protect them, so they are cautious around Skloot. So Skloot leaves and goes to find Henrietta’s unmarked grave to meet Cootie, Henrietta’s first cousin.
Cootie tells Skloot Henrietta was a sweet stubborn little lady and the whole town believes Henrietta was killed through the doctors and voodoo.2nd Quarter The story then shifts back to the research on Henrietta’s cells immediately after her death and Gey wants to get more cells from her dead organs, but he needed Day’s permission. Day denied even though the hospital told him it would help his children in the long run, but later changed his mind and let them carry through with the autopsy. Meanwhile a factory was built to create HeLa cells to help with the creation of the polio vaccine, as it would allow more accurate results using human cells instead of monkey cells. Eventually HeLa cells were being shipped everywhere to work on all types of cures for different diseases and illnesses. Scientists learned how to freeze cells which allowed them to last longer and ship around them around the world for longer periods of time. HeLa cells lead to a lot of discoveries including the first steps in cloning, discovering normal human cells have 46 chromosomes, and charactersitics of herpes and mumps. Then a new HeLa cell manufacturing factory was created, and they were selling the cells for profit which caused Gey to fall behind because he never published or patented anything about the cells that he discovered.
Scientists started to ask Gey where the cells came from, and he denied to talk about Henrietta but told them whatever they wanted about the cells themselves. That’s how false names came to be until the 70’s when it was revealed that the HeLa cells where named after a black woman named Henrietta Lacks. The story comes back to Skloot and she reveals that she found out Henrietta’s children were taken care of by Henrietta’s cousin Galen and his wife Ethel. The temporary parents for the children were very cruel to the children, especially Joe, Henrietta’s youngest, who went into military service and later into prison for murder.
However, in prison Joe found the Koran and converted to Islam and he changed his name to Zakariyya. Lawrence, Henrietta’s eldest met a woman named Bobbette who acted as a mother to the rest of the Lacks children. Meanwhile, Deborah, the youngest daughter was sexually abused by Galen, and Bobbette eventually stepped in and stopped it once Deborah confessed about what Galen was doing to her. At age 16, Deborah had her first child, and she married the babies father only to be abused by him as he was an active drug user and often sold from their home.
Eventually Deborah left him due to his abusive nature after he almost killed her and some convincement from her replacement mother Bobette.Skloot then comes back to her meeting with Cootie and that the family essentially forgot about what happened to her since talking about cancer was “taboo”. Skloot meets Cliff, another one of Henrietta’s cousins who tells her more about Henrietta’s life and admits he knows aboslutely nothing about Henriettas cells and his whole family does not really know anything either. Skloot later does some research to find a man named Southam who injected men with cancerous HeLa cells without their consent. The cells made it into space and it was discovered they were even stronger in space. However, Southam was brought to court due to ethical reasons, but got away due to his big discoveries in the research.
Meanwhile, the cell cultures were supposedly being carefuly guarding because scientists did not want cross contamination happening, but somehow several cell lines got severely contaminated causing scientists to freak out. Gey was no help since he gave away so many of the original cell line not thinking something like this would happen in the future. The cell contamination was both bad and good because it contaminated several cell lines that could have brought major innovations, but it also brought the first steps in gene therapy through combining two cells of similar genetic traits.
The combination of cells also helped with the first few steps in organ transplants. Meanwhile, as the cell contamination continued a man named Stanley Gartler discovered not all of their research cells had been contaminated by HeLa, most were just contaminated by a genetic marker found in African Americans. However he did discover HeLa could float through the air so it could attach to anything no matter how muh they thought they were keeping the cells from becomming contaminated. The scientists went nuts because most of their research was thrown down the drain since it was contaminated by HeLa. All of a sudden HeLa cells were being found in labs that had never been in contanct with the easily spreadable cells, which caused the question of who was HeLa’s family to really come into play.