The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 1, Chapter 7 : The Death and Life of Cell Culture (1951) | Summary

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Summary

Skloot informs the reader that by the time of Henrietta's illness, researchers had already been searching for an immortal line of cells for a long time—at least since the beginning of the 20th century. But when George Gey begins working with HeLa cells, it doesn't make much of a splash in the scientific community. Skloot reviews for the reader the back story of the search for cell immortality. In 1912 Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon who worked at the Rockefeller Institute, claimed he had grown immortal chicken heart cells. He had already invented a technique to suture blood vessels and was hoping to combine this technique with cell culture to transplant whole organs. His goal was to keep white people alive forever; he was a big fan of Hitler's work in this regard. Carrel eventually was accused of collaborating with the Nazis and died awaiting trial. Scientist Leonard Hayflick tried to duplicate Carrel's work with the chicken heart cells and discovered it was impossible, and one of Carrel's assistants noted the cells died fairly early on. The scientific community has not yet recovered from this farce when Gey begins culturing HeLa cells and sending them to researchers all over the world.

Analysis

Gey's objective is to find a cure for cancer, so he sends the HeLa cells to every cancer researcher who wants them. However, he never publicly announces the cells come from Henrietta Lacks, so she receives no credit for her contribution to science.

The scientific community isn't ready to accept Gey's cells as miraculous, though, thanks to the white supremacist Carrel, who didn't even succeed in culturing immortal cells, as it turned out. Carrel was unethical in several ways, not only because he lied about his chicken heart cells staying alive but also because his goal was to grow organs to keep the white people alive and make the population "purer." Carrel didn't believe in the U.S. Constitution; he didn't think everyone deserved freedom and education. His racist ideas did win some support—crowds came to hear him speak. But many others disagreed with his unethical, inhumane philosophies.

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