Summary: Chapter 12

When Gey heard about Henrietta’s death, he requested an autopsy so that he could get cells from her other organs. The law didn’t require consent for tissue samples from living patients, but required familial consent for tissue samples from the dead. Someone from Hopkins called Day to ask for consent, but he declined. The next day, the doctors asked Day again when he went to Hopkins to see Henrietta’s body. The doctors explained they wanted to run tests that might someday help the Lacks children. Day’s cousin said it wouldn’t hurt, so Day agreed.

Kubicek helped to place the cell samples in culture. She later told Skloot that she remembers seeing Henrietta’s painted toenails and realizing for the first time that the cells she worked with came from a real woman.

Hopkins sent Henrietta’s body back to Clover for her funeral. Sadie started crying when she saw how chipped Henrietta’s toenail polish was because it revealed how much pain Henrietta had been in. Healthy, Henrietta would never have let her nail polish get so chipped.

During Henrietta’s burial, a giant storm brewed. The wind upended one of the cabins in Lacks Town and even killed one of the cousins. Henrietta’s cousin Peter believes the storm was Henrietta signaling her anger.

Summary: Chapter 13

Around the end of 1951, the world faced a massive polio epidemic. Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh had created a vaccine, but he had to prove it was safe before it could be used. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) developed a clinical trial, but the tests to prove immunity involved cells obtained from monkeys, which were cost-prohibitive.

The NFIP contacted George Gey to see if they could use his cell cultures instead. In 1952, Gey and a colleague successfully proved that HeLa cells were susceptible to poliovirus. After Gey figured out how to ship large quantities of HeLa cells through mail, the NFIP sought to mass produce the cells to use in their research. Charles Bynum, the director of black activities for NFIP, suggested the Tuskegee Institute as a place to create HeLa cells in order to support black scientists. The cells these scientists grew soon proved Salk’s vaccine effective.

The Tuskegee lab provided HeLa cells for many different kinds of research because, despite being cancerous, the cells behaved similarly to healthy ones. Scientists used Henrietta’s cells to study viruses, freeze cells without damaging them, standardize tissue culturing practices, and even clone individual cells. HeLa also lead to many advances in genetics, including the discovery that human cells have forty-six chromosomes.

Soon the Tuskegee lab couldn’t keep up with the demand for HeLa cells. Samuel Reader, the head of a company called Microbiological Associates, and his business partner, researcher Monroe Vincent, saw the demand for HeLa as a business opportunity and started the first for-profit, industrial-scale cell distribution center. They began fulfilling orders for large laboratories like the NIH. The success of Microbiological Associates and companies like it eventually put the Tuskegee lab out of business.

George Gey found the obsession with HeLa frustrating. Mary and Margaret had to cajole him into writing so much as an abstract on growing HeLa, and Margaret ended up submitting it. She often wrote and submitted her husband’s findings after that. Gey’s friends asked why he hadn’t taken ownership of HeLa research before allowing it to become “general scientific property,” but he had little interest in profiting from his research.

Summary: Chapter 14

On November 2, 1953, the Minneappolis Star published an article on HeLa cells, misnaming their donor as Henrietta Lakes. No one knows who gave the newspaper the wrong name. Soon after, a press officer for NFIP, Roland Berg, also wanted to write a story about HeLa. Gey agreed that a story was a good idea, but felt Henrietta’s name should be left out of it to protect her privacy. Berg insisted that her name was essential to the human-interest side of the story. Gey and TeLinde agreed that Berg shouldn’t use Henrietta’s name but could use a pseudonym. Berg didn’t write the article.

A reporter from Colliers magazine wanted to write a similar article. Gey agreed under the strict conditions that he be allowed to read and edit it before publication and that the details about Henrietta’s life be removed. On May 14, 1954, Colliers published an article about cell culturing with two pieces of misinformation. The article gave Henrietta’s name as Helen L. and claimed Gey had taken the HeLa sample after her death. No one knows how this information ended up in the final article. Some of Gey’s colleagues claim he gave reporters a false name on purpose to protect Henrietta’s privacy.

Analysis: Part 2, Chapters 12–14

Henrietta’s red nail polish becomes symbolic of her personhood in Chapter 12. For Kubicek, the toenail polish is a symbol of Henrietta, the person who cannot be erased despite the dehumanization of her body by doctors and researchers. While parts of a body, like organs and tissues for example, can be examined in purely medical terms, the red toenail polish is a sign of personality, something Henrietta had actively chosen to wear. That it took toenail polish for Kubicek to fully realize Henrietta’s humanity shows the extent to which Kubicek had been trained not to think of her cell cultures as coming from human patients. In contrast, for Sadie, who already knew Henrietta’s personality, the condition of the toenail polish demonstrates Henrietta’s decline and death. The chipped polish signifies the pain and suffering that Henrietta had to endure in her illness and treatment, which prevented her from taking care of herself. This self-neglect represents a loss of personality to illness, in which Henrietta could no longer handle the daily habits and routines that were representative of her identity. The contrast between Kubicek’s and Sadie’s reactions highlights how scientific research is more personal than people realize.

The story of HeLa cell production introduces the complicated role profit plays in medical research and the ethical concerns therein. On the one hand, the Tuskegee lab, which relied on grant funding, couldn’t keep up with the demand for the cells, and so privatization helped push forward scientific research. However, this privatization undermined minority scientists at Tuskegee, who otherwise had a difficult time finding jobs or acceptance in the mainstream scientific community. Unlike the scientists in the Tuskegee lab, Reader and Vincent had the financial resources to start a company and the social clout to attract large customers, like the NIH. If we take this example as a model of the benefits and costs of for-profit research, it suggests that nonprofit science has the potential to open doors for different kinds of scientists, whereas privatization benefits those who already have the opportunities. That the Lacks family did not receive financial compensation or benefit from any of the institutes involved in the production and distribution of the HeLa cells raises disturbing questions about the right to bodily integrity, the source of profits, and the nature of compensation for research subjects.

George Gey plays a complicated role in this story because, while he may have been an excellent scientist, his pursuit of science above all else hurt those around him. We see his ability to ignore Henrietta’s humanity again in Chapter 12 in his reaction to Henrietta’s death. He requests more cell samples, ignoring the fact that a woman had just died. This request led hospital workers to ask permission multiple times from Day, a grieving husband, which shows disrespect for his emotions. Gey had an admirable desire to continue pursuing new research instead of coasting on his fame from HeLa, but in order to receive compensation for any of his work, his wife had to perform the tedious tasks of writing out and submitting his findings. In this way, his scientific devotion forced his wife to perform the more menial duties he didn’t feel like completing, while he received full credit for the work. Nevertheless, Gey’s generosity with HeLa cells doubtlessly allowed for the considerable good they did for medicine. The way in which Gey’s scientific greatness and benevolence doesn’t match his personal actions signifies that being a good scientist doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good person.

Gey and TeLinde’s desire to protect Henrietta’s privacy conflicts with Deborah’s anger in previous chapters over people not knowing Henrietta’s true name. Their differing opinions draw attention to the fact that the Lacks family was left out of the conversation about privacy, and raises questions about the doctors’ motivations for protecting Henrietta’s privacy. They may have simply realized the sensitive nature of revealing the name of a cervical cancer patient. However, they may also have been concerned about racist backlash from the white public if it were known these scientific breakthroughs came from a black woman’s cells. Regardless of their motivation, Deborah felt that hiding Henrietta’s name took the credit and attention away from her mother. The Lacks family never got a voice in this discussion about privacy, however, because the Hopkins doctors never told them about the cells. In this way, the privacy decisions Gey and TeLinde made mirrors the doctrine of benevolent deception. The family never got to decide for themselves whether they wanted the world to know Henrietta’s name or not because Gey and TeLinde made the decision for them without giving them adequate information or even letting them know there was a decision to make.