Summary: Epigraph

The book begins with a quotation from Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, from his forward to the book The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code . The quote emphasizes the importance of never seeing people as abstractions and remembering that they are individuals with an inner life.

Summary: Prologue

Rebecca Skloot first encountered the name of Henrietta Lacks in a community college biology course. Her professor explained that scientists know what causes cancer because of a cell sample taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died from cervical cancer. Her cells were the first human cells kept stable in a laboratory, and now have been alive longer than Lacks herself. These cells allowed for many medical breakthroughs. However, the professor had no other information about Lacks other than that she was black.

Skloot tried to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, but discovered many sources didn’t even use her correct name. She encountered a few magazine articles with interviews from Henrietta’s family, who felt taken advantage of by the medical community and seemed confused about what Henrietta’s cells had been used for. As Skloot studied writing in graduate school, she envisioned writing a biography of both the cells and Henrietta Lacks herself.

Skloot notes that in the course of writing the book she and Henrietta’s daughter Deborah formed a friendship. Deborah believes fate and the spirit of Henrietta led Skloot to write the book.

Summary: Deborah’s Voice

The book contains a secondary prologue quoted directly from Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s second daughter. In the quote, Deborah says that when she tells her doctors that her mother is Henrietta Lacks, they get excited and tell her about how her mother’s cells helped science. However, they never explain how her mother’s cells accomplished this. Deborah also notes that her family is still extremely poor although people have profited from her mother’s cells. She used to get angry about this, but now all she wants is to understand who her mother was.

Summary: Chapter 1

In 1951, Henrietta went to the gynecologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital after finding a knot on her cervix. She’d first noticed it soon after giving birth to her fourth child, Deborah. A few months after giving birth to her fifth child, Joe, she began to bleed when it wasn’t her period, and then went to the doctor, who referred her to a gynecologist at Johns Hopkins. Although Johns Hopkins was twenty miles away from where Henrietta lived, it was the closest hospital that treated black patients.