The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Key Figures

Key Figure Description
Henrietta Lacks Henrietta Lacks is the woman whose tumor cells, called HeLa cells, have saved countless lives because of their ability to survive in a test tube. Read More
Rebecca Skloot Rebecca Skloot is the author and journalist who writes about Henrietta Lacks and her family; she also sets a up a foundation to help Henrietta's descendants with schooling and healthcare. Read More
Deborah Lacks Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks's youngest daughter, wants to find out what happened to Henrietta and to Deborah's sister, Elsie. She helps Skloot with her research and becomes close to her. Read More
George Gey George Gey is the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins Hospital while Henrietta Lacks is treated there; he cultures, or cultivates, Henrietta's HeLa cancer cells. Read More
Little Alfred Alfred Jr. is Deborah Lacks's second grandson.
Laure Aurelian Laure Aurelian is a microbiologist who works with George Gey; according to her, Gey tells Henrietta Lacks her cells will help save the lives of countless people.
Richard Axel Richard Axel is a scientist who uses HeLa cells to study HIV.
Alexis Carrel Alexis Carrel is a French surgeon who, in 1912, claims to have grown an "immortal chicken heart"; he sees the immortal chicken cells as a route to preserve the "superior white race." Carrel wins a Nobel Prize for his blood-vessel-suturing technique and contributions to organ transplant surgery.
Alfred Carter Jr. Alfred Carter Jr. is Deborah Lack's first child with her first husband, Cheetah; he is frequently in trouble with the law.
Cheetah Alfred "Cheetah" Carter is Deborah Lacks's first husband; he is frequently abusive.
Cliff Cliff Garret is one of Henrietta Lacks's cousins; he shows Skloot the graveyard where Henrietta and her mother, along with the Lacks ancestors, are buried.
Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield is a con man who sues Courtney Speed, the Lacks family, and Johns Hopkins.
Cootie Hector "Cootie" Henry is Henrietta Lacks's elderly cousin and the first family member Skloot meets when she visits Lacks Town.
Crazy Joe Crazy Joe is one of Henrietta's cousins; he competes with Day for Henrietta's affections.
Ethel Ethel is Galen's wife and a caregiver to Henrietta's three youngest children after Henrietta dies; she dislikes Henrietta and is abusive to the children.
Galen Galen is Henrietta Lacks's cousin and Ethel's husband; he sexually abuses Deborah Lacks when she is a child.
Fred Garret Fred Garret is one of Henrietta Lacks's cousins; he moves to Turner Station, outside Baltimore, to work in a steel mill, and convinces Henrietta to move there too.
Stanley Gartler Stanley Gartler is a geneticist who announces the HeLa cells contaminate other cells and can spread easily, even on dust particles.
Margaret Gey Margaret Gey is married to George Gey; for more than a decade she runs his lab without pay and conducts research alongside him, although she receives no credit for her work.
David Golde David Golde is a surgeon at UCLA Medical Center who attempts to profit from the cells of his patient, John Moore.
Harald zur Hausen Harald zur Hausen is the scientist who discovers the HPV virus; he learns that HPV-18 and HPV-16 cause cervical cancer and finds HPV-18 in the HeLa cells.
Leonard Hayflick Leonard Hayflick is a scientist who is suspicious of Alexis Carrel's claims of creating an "immortal chicken heart"; after Carrel's death he tries to duplicate the results and determines the original chicken cells died soon after Carrel put them in culture.
Susan Hsu Susan Hsu is a post-doctoral fellow who assists Victor McKusick; she draws blood from Henrietta's children, who don't know the blood will be used for genetic studies.
Howard Jones Howard Jones is a gynecologist at Johns Hopkins; he diagnoses Henrietta Lacks with inoperable cervical cancer and treats her with radiation. He later discovers her tumor was misdiagnosed.
Mary Kubicek Mary Kubicek is George Gey's lab assistant; she cultures, or cultivates, the first HeLa cells.
Bobbette Lacks Bobbette Lacks, Lawrence's wife, is a powerhouse of a woman who kept Deborah Lacks safe as a teenager from Galen, an abusive man who lived with his wife, Ethel, and Deborah's family after Henrietta died. Bobbette exerts a great deal of influence on how the men in the Lacks family think about the use of Henrietta Lacks's cells and how Skloot's research proceeds.
David "Day" Lacks David "Day" Lacks is Henrietta Lacks's cousin. He and Henrietta have a child together when she is 14, and they later marry. Day's philandering leads Henrietta to contract HPV, the disease that makes her cervical cancer so aggressive, as well as syphilis, which compromises her immune system.
Elsie Lacks Elsie Lacks, Henrietta Lacks's second child, has epilepsy and is developmentally disabled. Unable to care for her, Henrietta puts her in Crownsville Hospital, where she dies at 15.
Emmett Lacks Emmett Lacks is Henrietta Lacks's cousin, who gathers together relatives to give blood at the hospital as she is dying.
Gary Lacks Gary Lacks, Deborah Lacks's cousin, is a preacher who helps her stay spiritually centered while she searches for information about her mother.
Gladys Lacks Gladys Lacks is Henrietta Lacks's sister; she disapproves of Henrietta's marriage to Day and is with Henrietta as she dies.
Lawrence Lacks Lawrence Lacks is Henrietta Lacks's oldest son and the hub of the Lacks family. Lawrence remembers what Henrietta was like, but he doesn't like to talk about her. Still, he allows Skloot to speak with the rest of the Lacks family, making it possible for Skloot to share Henrietta's story with the world.
Sonny Lacks Sonny Lacks is Henrietta Lacks's second son. Sonny is the first member of the Lacks family to agree to meet with Skloot to discuss his mother, Henrietta. He is instrumental in helping her speak with his brother, Lawrence Lacks, and eventually meet the rest of the Lacks family.
Zakariyya Lacks Zakariyya Lacks, formerly Joe Lacks, is the baby born just before Henrietta Lacks discovers she has cervical cancer. When his mother dies, the young Joe is severely abused by Ethel. His violence as an adult subsides when he and Deborah Lacks see his mother's cells under a microscope, and Zakariyya gets to keep a framed photo of the cells.
Christoph Lengauer Christoph Lengauer is a cancer researcher who develops a method to detect DNA sequences and who gives Deborah and Zakariyya Lacks information about the HeLa cells.
Paul Lurz Paul Lurz works at Crownsville Hospital and gives Deborah Lacks crucial information about her sister, Elsie.
Victor McKusick Victor McKusick is a geneticist who studies samples from Henrietta's children without obtaining their consent.
Davon Meade Davon Meade is Deborah Lacks's first grandson.
John Moore John Moore is a cancer patient who unsuccessfully sues his doctors and the University of California for using his cells without his permission. The California Supreme Court rules against him, but his case spurs a discussion on patient rights.
Roland Pattillo Roland Pattillo is a professor of gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine; he was one of George Gey's only African American students. He hosts HeLa conferences at Morehouse to honor Henrietta.
James Pullum James Pullum, Deborah Lacks's second husband, is a steel mill worker turned preacher; he supports Skloot's efforts to find out more about Henrietta and Elsie Lacks.
Jeremy Rifkin Jeremy Rifkin sues Richard Axel, who uses HeLa cells to study HIV; Rifkin believes the cells will spread HIV everywhere. His suit is thrown out of court.
Michael Rogers Michael Rogers is a reporter for Rolling Stone who publishes an article on Henrietta Lacks.
Ted Slavin Ted Slavin is a hemophiliac who survives thanks to blood infusions. When he learns his blood contains high concentrations of hepatitis B, he sells samples to pharmaceutical companies, hoping to find a cure. He then goes on to found a company for others to sell their blood and samples.
Chester Southam Chester Southam is a scientist who injects people with HeLa cells without telling them they are cancer cells.
Courtney Speed Courtney Speed owns Speed's Grocery in Turner Station; she organizes a campaign to open a Henrietta Lacks museum.
Sadie Sturdivant Sadie Sturdivant is Henrietta Lacks's cousin and best childhood friend; she supports Henrietta during her illness.
Richard TeLinde Richard TeLinde is a doctor at Johns Hopkins and a top cervical cancer expert; he takes samples of Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells to use in his research, never asking her for permission to do so.
Barbara Wyche Barbara Wyche is a sociologist who works with Courtney Speed on a plan to open a Henrietta Lacks museum in Turner Station.
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