The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Study Guide." Course Hero. 11 Aug. 2017. Web. 10 Dec. 2018. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, August 11). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Study Guide." August 11, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2018.


Course Hero, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Study Guide," August 11, 2017, accessed December 10, 2018,

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 26 : Breach of Privacy (1980–1985) | Summary



Deborah gets remarried; her new husband, James Pullum, is a mechanic and part-time preacher. Henrietta's youngest son, Zakariyya—formerly known as Joe—gets out of prison. As an ex-con, he can't get a job so he starts participating in studies at Johns Hopkins to earn money. No one there knows he is Henrietta Lacks's son because Zakariyya changed his name. Day gets a check from a settlement for exposure to asbestos while working for Bethlehem Steel, and Deborah uses her portion of it to buy land in Clover, to be near her mother's grave. Sonny begins to deal drugs and gets caught, as does Deborah's son Alfred. Deborah is fed up with him and finally lets him sit in jail.

Deborah learns she can obtain Henrietta's medical records from Johns Hopkins because she is next of kin, but she doesn't do so. When she comes across a book by Michael Gold about the HeLa contamination, she realizes the author must have had access to Henrietta's records. Years later Skloot calls Gold to find out how he got her mother's records, but he doesn't remember who gave the records to him. He says he spoke with both Dr. Jones and Dr. McKusick; neither admits to giving Gold the records, and Skloot says Jones doesn't even remember talking with Gold. Gold tells Skloot he never contacted the Lacks family because their addresses and phone numbers "never seemed to be current." Gold says, "I just thought they [the family] might make some interesting color for the scientific story." Skloot notes it is not standard practice in medicine—and was not even then—to release patient records to journalists. At the time Gold wrote the book, Maryland hadn't yet passed laws regarding patient privacy.


The Lacks family is struggling financially, even with the settlement Day gets. Zakariyya's method of getting money, participating in studies, is dangerous, and yet he has no other option, having just been released from prison. Sonny and Alfred are both in tough situations financially, and they turn to drugs, either selling them or taking them. Skloot makes visible in this chapter the desperation of poverty and the moves people make when they must find a way to survive.

Skloot also reveals the seamy side of science journalism. Michael Gold, a journalist for Science 85 magazine, clearly knows it's unethical to publish details from a person's private medical records just to add "some interesting color" to an otherwise dry story. He says he spoke to Henrietta's doctors, yet they claim they never talked to him and don't know who gave him Henrietta's records. Skloot's inquiries show the tendency to pass the blame when it comes to breaching patient confidentiality. It's clear no one took Henrietta's rights as a patient into consideration, nor did they consider how publishing her personal information might affect her family.

Deborah is traumatized by her mother's photo and the description of her autopsy. She is already feeling vulnerable thanks to her son's arrest and his drug use. She's dealt with this kind of behavior before, from Cheetah, and she isn't about to let addictive behavior rule her life again. But she stumbles unaware on the book's descriptions of her mother's suffering, and she feels betrayed both by Johns Hopkins and the book's author, and this informs her distrust of Skloot.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!