The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 1, Chapter 4 : The Birth of HeLa (1951) | Summary



George Gey and Mary Kubicek, his assistant, run the tissue culture research lab at Johns Hopkins. Gey develops a culture medium using chicken blood and blood products from other creatures, as well as human umbilical cord blood. Gey, who over a long time has worked his way through medical school, stopping to work enough to get money for each year of school, is a rebel in the lab, constructing machines from the most unlikely parts. He constructs a roller-tube machine to keep the culture medium and the samples in motion, as they would be in the human body. Gey's biggest problem in trying to culture cells is contamination from bacteria and other microorganisms. Gey's wife, Margaret, who is trained as a surgical nurse, tries to keep everything in the lab sterile, which helps keep contamination down.

Mary Kubicek is in charge of culturing the HeLa cells. After she has placed the samples into Gey's machine, she waits a few days before checking the cells. Meanwhile, Henrietta is released from the hospital, having had the radium tubes removed, and is instructed to come back for more treatment in two weeks. Mary doesn't have any faith Henrietta's cells will survive, even when they start growing two days after Henrietta leaves the hospital. However, by the next morning, they have doubled, and continue to do so daily. Gey begins to think he has finally "grown the first immortal human cells." Every colleague he tells wants some, and he gives them away freely.


George Gey's personality, part workhorse and part rebel, allows him to push through the most difficult of challenges in his lab, but it is his wife, Margaret, who makes sure it is possible to grow uncontaminated cells in the lab. Mary Kubicek is the assistant who prepares the samples for growth. However, George Gey gets the credit for growing the first immortal human cells. During this time women in science are relegated to assistant and helper status, although male scientists might never make discoveries without them.

Henrietta is subjected to invasive procedures but maintains a stoic attitude. Doctors note she is "lying quietly in no evident distress," and they send her home because she feels fine and is "ready to go home." Henrietta's backbone-building background—fighting off cousins, working long hours in a tobacco field, becoming a mother at age 14, taking care of her immediate family as well as cousins and other relative—helps her gets through the experience without one complaint. When Henrietta leaves for the hospital, she insists she is fine and the doctor is going to fix her up. She doesn't want to share her pain or need, and she doesn't want to appear to question the doctors' judgment.

The rapid growth of the HeLa cells—they double every 24 hours—is one of their most remarkable features. The other: the HeLa cells do not die. This will facilitate whole new branches of research, which no one will tell Henrietta or her family about.

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