The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Exam (1951)
Henrietta Lacks goes to the gynecology clinic at Johns Hopkins asking for a doctor to examine a
“knot on her womb.”
She had been having some pain for about a year, and discussed it with her
cousins, but not done anything until the pains got more severe.
The local doctor had tested her
for syphilis, which was negative, and advised her to go to Hopkins, a university hospital that was
the only major hospital in the area that would treat black patients during this time, the Jim Crow
Patient records detail some of her prior history and provide the reader with background:
is described as being one of ten siblings, having six or seven years of education, five children of
her own, a history of apparently declining suggested medical treatments, with a recent history of
vaginal bleeding and blood in urine. But she had not followed up on recent clinic visits.
revealed a shiny purple lump on the cervix about the size of a nickel.
Dr. Howard Jones took a
sample and sent it to the lab. He observed that no abnormality had been noted when she had
delivered a baby some four month earlier, or at the six week follow-up.
Chapter 2: Clover (1920 –1942)
Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant) born August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Va.
After her mother
died in 1924, giving birth to her tenth child, her father took the children back to the Clover, Va.,
where they were split up to live with relatives.
Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather,
Tommy Lacks, in the home-house.
Her eight-year old cousin, David (Day), also lived there.
Describes what it was like to grow up in this small, tobacco farming community, and relates
some stories of Henrietta’s experiences, as told by relatives including her sister, Gladys, and her
Henrietta and Day had a son, Lawrence, when Henrietta was 14, and a daughter,
Lucile Elsie Pleasant, when she was 18.
They married on April 10. 1941.
After the US entered
World War II, a cousin enticed Day to come work at the Sparrows Point steel mill in Maryland.
A few months later Henrietta and the children joined him and moved into housing for African
American workers at Turner Station.
Chapter 3: Diagnosis and Treatment (1951)
Two narratives are presented:
one detailing the medical understanding and treatment of cervical
cancer in the early 50s, the other describing Henrietta’s experience in treatment at Johns
Hopkins. Dr. Richard TeLinde at Johns Hopkins was one of the leading researchers in the field,
interested in demonstrating the then debated claim that noninvasive (in situ) cervical cancer was
simply invasive cancer at an earlier stage. To test this he needed to grow normal cervical tissue
and tissues from both types of cancer in the laboratory, and he enlisted Dr. George Gey, head of
tissue culture research, to assist him.
Gey and his wife, Margaret, had been trying for decades to
develop an immortal human cell line and grow malignant cells outside the body; TeLinde offered