The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 22 : "The Fame She So Richly Deserves" (1970–1973) | Summary



In 1970 George Gey becomes ill with pancreatic cancer and tries to start a cell line with his own cancer cells, but the cancer has spread too far to be operable. He dies a few months after finding out he has the disease. When Howard Jones, Henrietta's former doctor, decides to write an article about the HeLa cells to honor Gey, he looks at a photo of Henrietta's tumor and realizes it was misdiagnosed. It was an "aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix," which explains why doctors didn't expect it to spread as quickly as it did. Epidermoid carcinomas spread more slowly. It is likely Henrietta's syphilis also suppressed her immune system. With the article he writes, he releases Henrietta's name and her photo.

The HeLa contamination problem has reached a crisis point because in searching for a "cancer virus," researchers keep finding their cells are HeLa cells. The press becomes interested in where the HeLa cells come from, and the journal Nature publishes a request for information on the donor's identity. Ideas come in from everywhere, but Howard Jones sends a letter identifying the cells as those of Henrietta Lacks. Victor McKusick does the same, sending his letter to a journalist at Science and correcting the type of tumor as well.


Gey's instinct to start a cell line from his own cancer is indicative of his narrow focus on what was important in his life, which was to relentlessly research cancer regardless of the difficulty. He put himself through experimental treatments, offering himself up as a subject for research, but none of them worked. His death sparked yet another breach in patient rights: the release of Henrietta Lacks's name to the public.

Journalists say they want to give Henrietta the "fame she so richly deserves," but releasing her name puts the family in the line of fire for scientists who want to do further research and opens the door to sharing her medical records with the public, an unacceptable breach of privacy.

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