The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 33 : The Hospital for the Negro Insane (2001) | Summary



Skloot and Deborah go on a weeklong trip together to visit Crownsville Hospital, which had been the Hospital for the Negro Insane. Deborah had been told the records from the 1950s and earlier were destroyed, and when they arrive at the hospital, the shelves that once held the records are bare. They meet Paul Lurz, the hospital's director of performance and improvement, and he tells them the archives were buried because they had been exposed to asbestos. He does, however, have some records tucked away, because he is also a social worker who loves history. Deborah shows him the photo of Elsie and the cause of death on her death certificate, and Lurz says Elsie doesn't look like a child with cerebral palsy at all. Amazingly, he locates information about Elsie in his file, and is stunned to find a photo of her. In the photo Elsie is bruised and is screaming, while a pair of white hands hold her head, "twisted unnaturally to the left." The comparison between the two photos is shocking. They are interrupted by a man who tries to stop them from looking at the records, but Lurz has Deborah write a request for them on the spot. She has the birth certificate and power of attorney over Elsie, so Lurz can give her the records. They realize the man is protecting patient privacy, which hasn't happened before.

Skloot and Deborah also read articles about how overcrowded Crownsville was at the time of Elsie's death. The hospital was packed with people who had been sent there from other hospitals and "inmates weren't separated by age or sex, and often included sex offenders." The death rate was extremely high. Patients with epilepsy were subjected to procedures such as pneumoencephalography, which caused brain damage; researchers also conducted studies in which they inserted metal probes into epilepsy patients' brains. All this was done without patient or family consent. Many people in Crownsville were "institutionalized unnecessarily," according to a warden who took over after Elsie's death. Skloot and Deborah go to the state archives, but Elsie's records aren't there, so they continue on to Clover. Deborah gives Skloot her mother's medical records and says she is going to bed.


The photo of Elsie is shocking, but perhaps her condition isn't really that surprising. Crownsville Hospital was not financially equipped to treat all its black patients; its staff also performed experiments on people with epilepsy. Elsie's death was likely a result of all the experimentation, which would have caused severe vomiting and confusion; these are described in her records. Skloot is glad they can't find more information in the state archives; Deborah already is extremely upset. Skloot becomes protective of Deborah's emotional state, worrying it might affect Deborah's health.

Deborah comes to terms with what happened to Elsie only by remembering that times were different then; she says, "if you gonna go into history, you can't do it with a hate attitude." Still she is overwhelmed by the information Lurz finds and the articles she reads. It is clear Elsie died a terrible death in a "gruesome" place. Deborah is consumed with her wish to have saved Elsie.

Deborah's decision to give Skloot access to her mother's medical records is remarkable, given her lack of trust in anyone who has contact with the records or wants to see them. She claims she is going to let Skloot look at them without her, but she doesn't trust Skloot enough to do so. Unethical journalists and others have abused her trust repeatedly, so it is not surprising she still feels uncomfortable about sharing with Skloot.

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