The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 24 : "Least They Can Do" (1975) | Summary



Writer Michael Rogers goes to see Lawrence Lacks and interview the Lacks family for Rolling Stone. The Lackses end up asking him more questions than he asks them. Rogers soon realizes they have no idea why doctors wanted their blood samples, and they fear they might have cancer. Rogers tries to explain.

Sonny and Lawrence start to suspect George Gey and Johns Hopkins have made money from their mother's cells, but Skloot finds out this isn't the case. In fact Gey often uses his own money to buy lab equipment. However, Microbiological Associates has made millions from the cells. Sonny and Lawrence try to figure out how to get money from Johns Hopkins, but Deborah is concerned only about how much her mother suffered. She tries to teach herself about cells, using a textbook and a dictionary, but everything she reads about her mother's cells leaves her more confused. She worries her mother can feel all the diseases researchers inject into the HeLa cell, and she fears killing off the cells means killing her mother.

Rogers's Rolling Stone article renews interest in the Lacks story because it is the first story to report Henrietta Lacks was black. The idea of white doctors taking advantage of a black patient and selling her cells without giving her credit becomes "big news," and magazines like Ebony and Smithsonian take on the story. Meanwhile McKusick has published genetic information from Henrietta and her immediate family, with their names removed. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) is not yet in place to prevent publication of personal health information. The Lackses still have grounds to sue, since they never gave informed consent; however, they don't realize this.


Michael Rogers is horrified the Lacks family has been treated so poorly, and in his article he tries to restore some of the honor Henrietta and her family should have been given. However, public attention is risky. The doctor who studied the family's blood has now published their genetic information. Information like this can mean no health insurance for a family plagued by health problems and already unable to afford sufficient medical care. The Lacks family often goes without insurance, and since this part of the story unfolds before HIPAA and laws preventing insurance companies from discrimination based on preexisting conditions, this kind of information could keep them from ever being able to afford healthcare.

Many journalists want to tell Henrietta Lacks's story, but they all have their own agendas. Rogers is the first one to put together some of the missing pieces regarding the family's treatment.

The Lacks brothers grow suspicious about Johns Hopkins profiting from Henrietta's cells, but their suspicions are misplaced. Still, their frustration and anger are understandable; the family can barely afford the most minimal healthcare, yet the HeLa cells are making others rich.

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