The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 28 : After London (1996–1999) | Summary



Skloot describes the making of the BBC documentary on Henrietta and how Roland Pattillo contacted the Lacks family. Adam Curtis, a BBC producer, came to the United States in 1996 to interview the Lacks family and tell their story. The crew filmed the HeLa conference Pattillo organized as well. Pattillo worked with George Gey, so he was drawn to Henrietta's story and wanted to honor her contributions to science. He petitioned the city of Atlanta to name the HeLa conference date—October 11—Henrietta Lacks Day. He also had Dr. Howard Jones contribute a piece on his memories of Henrietta's diagnosis and her family, as well as her contribution to research. Deborah spoke at the conference; she felt things were finally looking up for her and for her mother's memory.

When the BBC came to make the documentary, Courtney Speed and sociologist Barbara Wyche began raising money to open a Henrietta Lacks museum. However, they didn't ask Deborah to be involved, and Deborah was furious they were raising money for a museum when Henrietta's children didn't have money to go to the doctor. But she relented because she thought the two women might help her learn more about her mother. Mary Kubicek came to Turner Station to speak about Henrietta, Representative Robert Ehrlich Jr. spoke about Henrietta to the House of Representatives, and Johns Hopkins became interested in finding a way to "honor Henrietta and the Lacks family." At that point, to Deborah, it really did seem that Henrietta would get her due.

Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, who claimed he was a lawyer and a doctor, tried to get Henrietta's records from Johns Hopkins. At first Deborah, Courtney Speed, and Barbara Wyche thought Cofield was trying to help Henrietta's cause. But when Richard Kidwell, an attorney at Johns Hopkins, learned what Cofield was trying to do, he warned Deborah not to allow Cofield access to the records. Kidwell discovered Cofield was neither a lawyer nor a doctor; he was a con man who launched "frivolous lawsuits." He launched such a suit against Deborah and the Lacks family, Courtney Speed, the museum board, and several people at Johns Hopkins. Hopkins fought the lawsuit, which Cofield eventually dropped, but Deborah and Courtney Speed were inundated with hundreds of legal documents, which terrified them.

Johns Hopkins backed away from doing anything to honor Henrietta, and Deborah fell into a deep depression. She now had her mother's records, and she discovered Elsie had died in Crownsville Hospital. When she called Crownsville, the hospital administrator told her most of the records from Elsie's time had been destroyed. Deborah's blood pressure shot up so far she had to be hospitalized. A week later Roland Pattillo called and told her about Skloot.


The story of Cofield and his lawsuits explains why Skloot has such difficulty getting information out of Courtney Speed when she goes to see her, and why Deborah tells Skloot she can't talk with her. After the Cofield experience, no one wants to talk about Henrietta anymore. Cofield is crazy, but his ability to make himself look almost legitimate scares everyone, including Johns Hopkins, which decides not to do anything to honor Henrietta after it must fight Cofield in court. Cofield may have thought by getting his hands on Henrietta's records he could somehow get the money the HeLa cells were making, but, as the Lackses discovered, Johns Hopkins was not making money on the cells. Cofield probably would have tried to get money out of private firms, but he was so well known in courtrooms as a lunatic it was not difficult for Johns Hopkins to get rid of him. However, the incident leads Johns Hopkins to stop talking about the HeLa situation; it doesn't want to attract any more trouble.

Pattillo genuinely wants to honor Henrietta; he also tries to protect Deborah after her near-stroke. Many people want a piece of the HeLa action, but only Pattillo considers the family's feelings. He trust that Skloot is interested in telling the Henrietta Lacks story to honor Henrietta and her family, not to make money or gain fame.

Deborah thinks the BBC documentary will bring her mother the attention she deserves, but she still doesn't get the information she wants about her mother's background. The disaster with Cofield finally spurs her to request her mother's records; when she does, the information she finds about Henrietta and Elsie upsets her to the point of illness. The experience is so intense it leaves Deborah emotionally raw.

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