The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 23 : "It's Alive" (1973–1974) | Summary



By chance Bobbette Lacks learns the HeLa cells come from her mother-in-law, and she is furious. Lawrence tries to find out about the cells from Hopkins, but he gets no answers.

Scientists want to map HeLa cells so the cells can be easily identified. To do this, scientists need DNA from Henrietta Lacks's family. Victor McKusick has access to the Lacks family's records since he is a physician on staff at Johns Hopkins. He orders Susan Hsu, his postdoctoral fellow, to get blood samples from the Lackses, but he doesn't tell her what to say to them. When Hsu calls Day Lacks, she uses words like "genetic marker" and "genotype," which mean nothing to him. He agrees to let her take samples simply because she is a medical professional. The family never receives consent forms because informed consent isn't law yet. Day thinks Johns Hopkins is going to test their blood to see if they have the same cancer Henrietta had.

When Deborah goes to Johns Hopkins for a second time, she asks McKusick questions; in response he gives her a genetics textbook he wrote, filled with scientific jargon Deborah can't understand. The book contains a photograph of Henrietta—one Deborah has never seen before. No one in the family shared it or gave permission to print it.

Later McKusick denies having had any contact with the Lackses, and Susan Hsu claims she is "shocked" the family thought they were being tested for cancer.


The interactions between doctors, scientists, and the Lacks family in this chapter illustrate the huge disconnect between white doctors and poor people, particularly poor black people. While everyone who works with the HeLa cells expresses gratitude for what Henrietta Lacks had done for science, gratitude doesn't make up for letting Deborah Lacks think she might have cancer. Gratitude also does not make up for Doctor McKusick not answering questions, not explaining complex medical concepts, and handing a college-level textbook to a patient who clearly has a limited education in science and needs a simpler explanation. Susan Hsu claims to be shocked the Lacks family never knew why blood was being taken—yet she met with the family and should have realized right away they did not understand what was happening. Hsu next wonders if the family is willing to give more blood. Everyone who contacts the Lacks family wants to take something away and give nothing in return.

The idea of creating a genome map for Henrietta's cells also ends up veering into breach of privacy for the medical records of her children. If Henrietta's children have the same DNA configuration or a similar one, and Henrietta's genome map is made public, then her children's medical information is also made public. This becomes an issue after the book is published, but Skloot's research and conversations with people involved in the case raise this question in the book itself.

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