The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 21 : Night Doctors (2000) | Summary



Returning to the research narrative, Sonny Lacks again agrees to meet with Skloot, and this time he shows up—albeit two hours late. He tells Skloot he will take her to his brother Lawrence, who will decide if the rest of the siblings can talk with her or not. Sonny tells Skloot he knows very little about his mother, but Lawrence was old enough when she died to remember quite a bit. Sonny jokes he wouldn't get Zakariyya to talk with her just yet, and wishes her luck, dropping her off. Lawrence appears in the kitchen; he's started cooking pork chops, which Skloot hasn't eaten in 10 years. She decides it is best to just eat what he cooks for her. He tells her about farming tobacco, but he can't bring himself to talk about his mother. Skloot eats while he asks her about the book she is writing and talks about his mother's cells getting rid of disease. Then he whispers, "Can you tell me what my mama's cells really did?" It turns out Lawrence doesn't know what a cell is, so Skloot explains it to him.

Sonny appears with Day. Both men need surgeries, but neither wants to see a doctor. Day doesn't want to talk about Henrietta's life. Instead he talks about how Hopkins cut up Henrietta to "see about that cancer" and said it would help his kids and grandkids, but all he agreed to was a "topsy." He found out doctors already knew Henrietta's cancer cells were growing before she died, but they never told him. Bobbette and Sonny chime in about doctors from Hopkins kidnapping black people to experiment on them. Slave owners used to tell stories about "night doctors" to scare their slaves into staying put, but doctors did test drugs on slaves and "operated on them to develop new surgical techniques, often without using anesthesia. Medical schools exhumed black bodies for research as well. People thought Johns Hopkins Hospital was built in a black neighborhood to have access to black people for research, but Hopkins built it to serve the poor and to help black patients as well. However, studies at Hopkins used black people as subjects without their permission right up to the late 1990s, when a study exposed children to varying degrees of lead in apartments to see what would happen to them.

Sonny and Lawrence are upset their family has health issues they can't afford to treat, while their mother's cells are bringing in money for someone else. Bobbette says maybe black people weren't really snatched off the streets for medical research; it could be a myth. But the idea that Henrietta donated her cells is a myth too: "She didn't donate nothing. They took them and didn't ask."


Skloot's persistence gets her in to see the Lacks men, and she passes muster by eating dinner and listening closely to what they say. Day is understandably frustrated because no one told him his wife's cancer cells were growing. The doctors didn't need an autopsy to tell them what killed Henrietta. Day knows now they just wanted more samples of Henrietta's tumors. He trusted doctors to tell him the truth and didn't question them, but now his trust has been broken and he doesn't want doctors anywhere near him, not even to get rid of the gangrene in his feet. Neither does Sonny. They're both afraid doctors will do more than they need to, without asking permission.

Hopkins may have been set up to serve the poor, but the earlier examples of doctors saying there was plenty of research material at Hopkins because of the large population of poor blacks confirms the Lacks's fears. When doctors exploited Henrietta for her cells without her permission or the family's knowledge, the Lackses soured on the medical community for good.

Bobbette's remark about Henrietta "donating" her cells highlights the idea of informed consent. If Henrietta didn't know doctors were taking her cells, she didn't donate them. The doctors used her and overrode her personal rights, something they might not have done if she hadn't been poor and black.

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