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By the 1960s HeLa cells were ubiquitous in the scientific landscape. Both Russian and American scientists sent them into space to research the effects of space travel on human cells.
Scientists noticed that all normal cells grown in culture either died or became cancerous. Cancer researchers hoped to discover the moment healthy cells turned malignant. Once the cell cultures turned malignant, they all produced the same enzymes regardless of what kinds of cells had been in the culture. This odd fact led cell culturist Lewis Coriell to wonder if something had contaminated the cell cultures—possibly HeLa.
Coriell and other tissue culturists met to discuss the state of tissue culturing, and they recommended the NIH establish a library of cells. The NIH established a Cell Culture Collection Committee for a nonprofit cell bank of uncontaminated cultures at the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC).
French researchers discovered how to fuse the genetic material from somatic cells, cells that are neither sperm nor ova. British scientists fused mouse cells with HeLa cells, creating a cell that had mouse and human DNA. This hybrid allowed for breakthroughs in studying the human genome and organ transplants. However, the media reported on the study as if scientists had created human-mouse monsters, causing outrage.
Deborah got pregnant at sixteen, and Bobette sent her to a school for pregnant teens. In 1966, she gave birth to her first son, Alfred “Cheetah” Jr. Bobette helped Deborah graduate high school. Lawrence ran a convenience store, and Sonny joined the air force.
Joe, on the other hand, had emotional issues. He dropped out of school in seventh grade. At eighteen, he joined the military, but his temper often landed him in solitary confinement. He was soon discharged. Upon returning home, another young man in the neighborhood, Elridge Lee Ivy, threatened Joe with a knife. Joe ignored him, but months later, Ivy beat up Joe for talking with a girl Ivy claimed was his cousin. The next day, Joe took a knife from Deborah’s kitchen and stabbed Ivy in the chest, killing him. Joe eventually turned himself in.
Joe pleaded guilty to the murder. The judge took psychiatric reports into account, and Joe received a lenient fifteen-year sentence. Initially, Joe caused problems in prison, but he later found Islam and grew less violent. He changed his name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman.
Deborah married Cheetah, but unfortunately he turned physically abusive. After a drunken attack, Deborah pushed him down the stairs and left him on the front stoop. When he was still alive in the morning, she brought him back inside and told Bobette she meant to kill him for hurting her. Bobette told her not to, and helped Deborah move out while Cheetah was at work.
At a conference in 1966, geneticist Stanley Garter shocked the attendees by demonstrating that the majority of human cell cultures had been contaminated by HeLa. He’d noticed that eighteen of the most common human cell cultures had the same genetic marker that almost only appeared in black Americans. Because not all of the samples had been taken from black Americans, and he knew from Gey that the HeLa sample had been taken from a black woman, he asserted that the simplest explanation was that HeLa had contaminated all of the samples. Worse still, at least six of the cell samples he’d identified as contaminated had come from the ATCC. This revelation invalidated many research studies because it meant scientists had not actually tested the specific type of cell they had believed they were studying. It implied that cells did not spontaneously become cancerous, but rather that HeLa cells had taken over samples.
At the beginning of 2000, Sonny finally met with Skloot. He took her to talk with Lawrence, the only Lacks child who remembered Henrietta. Lawrence talked about his childhood, avoiding speaking directly about Henrietta. He admitted he blocked out much of his teenage years. He asked Skloot what the cells really did for science because no one would tell him.
Sonny came back to the house bringing Day along with him. Day had gangrene but refused to get the affected toes amputated because he was afraid of doctors taking his cells too. He blamed Hopkins for Henrietta’s death and emphasized that the doctors had said the autopsy would help his children someday, but no one had mentioned keeping her cells alive. Bobette interjected that Hopkins notoriously kidnapped black people for research.
The story of the “night doctors” has been around since the nineteenth century. Part of it comes from ghost stories white plantation owners used to scare their slaves. However, white doctors did perform gruesome research on enslaved people without anesthetics. Furthermore, medical schools in northern states offered money for corpses, and grave robbers regularly exhumed the graves of black people. Many black people believed Hopkins was built in a poor black neighborhood in order to find research subjects.
Johns Hopkins, the founder of the university, had asked that the hospital provide medical care to those who couldn’t afford it and set aside additional resources specifically to help black children. Despite this mission, Hopkins has a dark racist past. In 1963, Hopkins researchers took blood samples from seven thousand black children without consent in order to prove they were genetically predisposed to criminality.
Sonny commented that it was bad that Hopkins didn’t tell the family about HeLa, and he wondered if they had malicious motivations. Lawrence noted that the Lacks family couldn’t afford healthcare while Hopkins profited from Henrietta’s cells. Bobette added that one of the big myths about HeLa is that Henrietta donated the cells when they had been taken from her.
In 1970, Gey contracted pancreatic cancer. He had an emergency operation to remove the tumor and instructed his team to take samples from his tumor for cell culture. However, the cancer had spread so far that the doctors were afraid to take a sample. He died in November of that year. He told Kubicek that enough time had passed to reveal Henrietta’s name.
While writing an article in Gey’s honor, Jones looked over Henrietta’s medical records. He discovered that the lab had mistaken the kind of tumor she had. This kind of misdiagnosis would have been common at the time, and both kinds of cancer required the same treatment. Jones’s article marked the first time Henrietta’s real name appeared in the press, but because it was in a specialty publication, few people knew it.
Around this time, President Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer, announcing that scientists would cure cancer within five years. However, most of the cell cultures scientists used in their research had been contaminated with HeLa. The story of a Russian experiment contaminated by American cells gained enough public interest to leak the story of HeLa contamination. People began to wonder who the mysterious HeLa had been. In 1973, an article in
magazine called for the release of HeLa’s identity so that the world could recognize her contribution to science. Howard Jones wrote to him, and the author posted a follow-up revealing Henrietta’s name.
Chapters 18 and 19 work in tandem in order to track Henrietta’s two legacies throughout the 1960s. The first is her scientific legacy through her cells, the other her personal legacy through her children. Henrietta’s scientific legacy was the HeLa cells, which dominated the scientific landscape, creating profitable research. Henrietta’s personal legacy was her children, who faced violence, prison, and poverty, demonstrating that Henrietta’s death led to great scientific progress at the expense of her children’s wellbeing. The contrast between the flourishing world of cell culture and difficult life of the Lacks family emphasizes that Henrietta’s scientific legacy, created without her knowledge or consent, doesn’t inherently benefit the Lacks children. No one at Hopkins told the Lacks children about HeLa, which meant that Henrietta’s family had no clue that she had a scientific legacy. When examined through a historical lens, this dramatic contrast mirrors the United States’ long record of dehumanizing and exploiting black Americans for profit. This contrast also contextualizes and supports Lawrence’s anger. He cannot find consolation in the good HeLa did for science and medicine when his family suffers from multiple health problems and receives no financial or emotional benefit from the use of HeLa cells.
The fear and panic caused by the reporting on the mouse-HeLa hybrid cells showcases the role of the media in perpetuating scientific misinformation. Instead of including details that would educate the public and allow them to draw informed conclusions about the scientific breakthrough, newspapers manufactured public outrage by telling a story that sounded exciting and would sell papers. This approach to storytelling is not unlike the approach of many doctors in this book thus far, who made excuses for lying or distorting the truth for their patients. This parallel between journalists and doctors emphasizes that both professions entail a responsibility to communicate vital information to their audience, patients, and research subjects. While the effects of this sensationalized story are minor compared to other instances of journalistic malpractice in this book, this example still shows a reporter distorting information to suit their needs instead of fulfilling their responsibilities to both their readers and the scientific community. Doctors and journalists have far reaching influence on people and their lives, those that they do research on, and those that they report about, respectively. This parallel will become important in Part 3, as journalists approach the Lacks family.
The necessity of Bobette’s strong, loving, and caring presence in Deborah’s life emphasizes that Deborah lost a mother at a very young age. The effects of that loss were present throughout Deborah’s entire life, putting her in the way of multiple structural disadvantages and risks. All throughout Part 2, we see Bobette taking a maternal role in Deborah’s life, especially in the way Bobette supported Deborah when she was pregnant. However, Bobette was Deborah’s sister-in-law with children of her own, which meant that Bobette had other obligations that she had to fulfill and could not take the place of Henrietta in Deborah’s life. The loss of Henrietta meant that Deborah was forced to live in a house with Ethel and Galen, where Deborah was subjected to abuse. Poverty exacerbated Deborah’s childhood abuse because she had no independent means to secure housing away from Ethel and Galen until Lawrence and Bobette noticed the problem. Deborah’s desire to marry young in order to escape Galen also shows that she was forced to grow up young instead of being able to enjoy her childhood. While Bobette offered excellent guidance and support, she could not provide the protection and structure that Deborah desperately needed.
The suffering of the Lacks children shows that poverty for black families in America is often generational and has extensive consequences. Intergenerational poverty means that parents are unable to provide financial security and opportunity for their children, who therefore inherit those conditions from their parents’ lives. Just as Henrietta became pregnant and got married young, this lack of opportunity passed on to Deborah because she, too, lacked the adult oversight and guidance that could have protected her. Growing up poor meant that neither Henrietta and Day nor their children were able to afford formal education, which in turn limited their opportunities for employment and access to healthcare. The lack of formal education also put the Lacks at a disadvantage in their interactions with journalists and medical researchers. Moreover, these conditions were traumatic for the Lacks family, demonstrated by the cases of both Deborah and Zakariyya. Deborah was under immense stress throughout her life, and Zakariyya’s trauma at Ethel’s hands resulted in him being violent towards others. Even the legal system, which is often disproportionately severe on poor and black Americans, recognized that trauma and stress created Zakariyya’s violent temper, signifying the physical and emotional consequences of generational poverty.
The story of the night doctors demonstrates how racism has created trauma around modern medicine for black communities. The legacy of the night doctors dates back to slavery in the United States, which involved treating the bodies of black people as raw material and as commodities. Graverobbers and medical schools also commodified black bodies in the northern states by creating a lucrative market for black corpses. This history, in combination with the research already discussed in the book, creates a context in which black people cannot trust scientists and doctors. The Hopkins doctors taking a tissue sample without Henrietta’s knowledge or permission, while unethical in and of itself, therefore also participates in this frightening history. We can see the effects of this fear on the Lacks family. For example, Day refused to have his toes amputated, an operation that could have saved his leg, because what happened to Henrietta confirmed his worst fears about how doctors would exploit his body. Furthermore, the story of the Hopkins researchers who used the hospital’s mission to conduct racist research reminds us that this kind of dehumanization and exploitation in the name of medical research didn’t end with slavery.
The Lacks family themselves are pointedly absent from the conversations between scientists and journalists around revealing Henrietta’s name. The idea of legacy is important here because while Henrietta’s children were her personal living legacy, they were denied the right to participate in her scientific legacy. Gey’s comment that enough years had passed to reveal Henrietta’s name shows that many in the scientific community did not think of Henrietta as a person with a living family who may have had an opinion on the revelation of their mother’s name and life. Not taking a patient’s family into consideration is part of the process of dehumanization in medical research because it positions patients as cases in isolation rather than people with loved ones. This dismissal of the Lacks family is made worse by the fact that Henrietta’s husband and children did not know about HeLa cells in the first place. Therefore, Henrietta’s children were erased from the story of HeLa cells, similar to the initial erasure of Henrietta’s name by the medical community. The revelation of Henrietta’s name marks another violation of privacy because it didn’t include or consider the knowledge or consent of the Lacks family.
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