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.
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.