The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Exam (1951) | Summary



In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, a poor woman with a sixth-grade education, decides to go to the gynecology department at Johns Hopkins Hospital to get a tumor checked out. She has been in pain for more than a year, feeling something she describes as a "knot on her womb." Her cousins told her it was because she was pregnant. But a few months after giving birth she is in worse pain and is bleeding. Henrietta's regular doctor thinks she has syphilis, but the tumor tests negative for the disease. Dr. Howard Jones at Johns Hopkins notes on her medical records she has asymptomatic neurosyphilis but cancels treatments when she says she feels fine. This pattern of cancellations continues for other medical treatments. Dr. Jones doesn't understand how Henrietta knows she had a lump in the neck of her womb, assuming she probably hasn't checked herself, but when he examines her he sees a purple knob on her cervix, "exactly where she said he would." He samples it and has it delivered to the lab for diagnosis; of her visit three months earlier he writes, "no note is made in the history at that time, or at the six weeks' return visit that there is any abnormality of the cervix."


Henrietta Lacks, having grown up on a tobacco farm and having received little education, goes to the doctor only when she absolutely must. Many black people in similar situations do the same, because not only is it uncomfortable to go into a segregated hospital, where Jim Crow laws are in full force, but the doctors speak in medical terms unfamiliar to patients, not bothering to explain them in simple terms. Like many black patients, women in particular, Henrietta doesn't question white doctors, and she doesn't go back to finish treatment for anything if she feels fine.

Dr. Jones assumes Henrietta doesn't know what she is talking about; this is common for the time, not only for white doctors interacting with black patients but also in general for doctors interacting with women. Dr. Jones thinks Henrietta could know about the lump only if she had "palpated" it. Henrietta has, in fact, checked herself in the bath and has felt the lump, just as she figured she would. Henrietta usually knows what is happening with her own body when she is symptomatic.

Henrietta often postpones going to the doctor because of the racism and classism she experiences there. But in this case it hasn't been long since her last hospital visit; she gave birth just three months ago. No one at the hospital noticed a tumor then, but Henrietta felt it. It's possible Henrietta's tumor appeared and then grew incredibly fast, given the virulence of her particular strain of cancer. Or maybe when Henrietta gave birth none of the nurses in attendance checked her cervix for abnormalities. Since hospitals that agreed to treat black people still tended to offer them inferior care, this second possibility is just as likely as the first.

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