The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Quotes


She, like most black patients, only went to Hopkins when she thought she had no choice.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 1, Chapter 1

Henrietta Lacks lives during a time when Jim Crow laws mandate the segregation of public places, so she can go only to the "colored" section of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where patients generally receive inferior treatment. Her limited education also means she has trouble understanding medical terminology, and doctors make no effort to explain it to her. Thus going the hospital is a confusing, uncomfortable, and demoralizing experience for her.


TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 1, Chapter 3

Richard TeLinde, a doctor and top cervical cancer expert at Johns Hopkins, samples Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells without her permission, but his actions are not unusual for the time. Patients in the public ward are poor and are treated with little respect for privacy.


Can I have some? ... George said yes.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 1, Chapter 4

When George Gey tells other researchers his lab may have grown the first immortal human cells—Henrietta Lacks's HeLa cells—the researchers ask if they can have some for their own research. Gey shares them freely, and soon they are being used for research all around the world.


Lord, it just feels like that blackness be spreadin all inside me.

Henrietta Lacks, Part 1, Chapter 5

The radiation treatments Henrietta Lacks undergoes make her belly skin turn black and charred, and she feels as if that burning sensation is running through her entire body. She knows the cancer had not stopped growing, so she keeps going for treatments, hoping to be cured, but the treatment doesn't stop the cancer from spreading and causing her more pain.


Well, so let my old lady cells talk to you and leave me alone.

David "Day" Lacks, Part 1, Chapter 6

Reporters have beset the Lacks family with questions about Henrietta and her HeLa cells, and Day Lacks is fed up. When Skloot tries to talk to him, he assumes she is out to exploit the family, just as others have done. The Lackses are tired of people taking and giving them nothing in return.


She told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 1, Chapter 8

Skloot notes there is no record of George Gey visiting Henrietta Lacks, except one report from Laure Aurelian, Gey's colleague at Johns Hopkins. In Aurelian's account, Gey tells Henrietta her cells will save countless lives, and Henrietta—who has taken care of family members all her life—is happy to know her pain will help others.


Everything about Henrietta dead except them cells.

Cootie, Part 1, Chapter 10

Cootie, Henrietta Lacks's cousin, says everyone in Lacks Town—the poor side of Clover, Virginia—is related to Henrietta, but most people have forgotten her by now; it's been 10 years since she died. By "everything" Cootie means both Henrietta and people's memories of her are dead—everything except her HeLa cells.


Black scientists ... many of them women, used cells from a black woman to ... save the lives of millions.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 2, Chapter 13

Skloot points out that the polio vaccine was tested mainly on white people, but the cells of a black woman—Henrietta Lacks—made possible the research leading to the vaccine—research often done by black scientists.


HeLa was a workhorse: it was hardy, it was inexpensive, and it was everywhere.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 2, Chapter 13

Researchers worldwide use the HeLa cancer cells because they behave the same way and have the same proteins as normal cells, and they are fast growing and extremely easy to culture, or cultivate. Many studies of diseases and disorders owe their success to the HeLa cells, but the Lacks family was never rewarded for all that the cells contributed to the field of medicine.


The world of science had not only HeLa, but also its hundreds, then thousands, of clones.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 2, Chapter 14

HeLa cells have been instrumental in developing cloning technology, which has enabled scientists to isolate types of cells as well as perform in-vitro fertilization. Scientists now can clone animals, which raises a new set of ethical questions and has fueled genetic studies.


If our mother is so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?

Lawrence Lacks, Part 2, Chapter 21

While the HeLa cells make millions for biotech firms that sell them, the Lacks family can't benefit from any of the medical breakthroughs the cells have facilitated. The Lackses are too poor to have regular health insurance, and they haven't seen a cent of the profits generated from the sale of the HeLa cells.


She didn't donate nothing. They took them and didn't ask.

Bobbette Lacks, Part 2, Chapter 21

Scientists and doctors say Henrietta Lacks donated her HeLa cells, but Bobbette Lacks says this is a myth. No one told Henrietta the doctor was taking a sample of her tumor to use for research. To donate means to give something willingly. In Bobbette's view the doctors acquired Henrietta's cells not through a donation but through theft and dishonesty.


You know, we never thought at that time they did not understand.

Susan Hsu, Part 3, Chapter 23

Dr. Victor McKusick tells Susan Hsu to draw blood from the Lacks children so he can study their DNA, which will help researchers better understand and use Henrietta's HeLa cells. Hsu draws their blood without explaining why she is doing so, and Dr. McKusick doesn't answer any of Deborah Lack's questions. The Lacks children panic; they think they are being tested for cancer, but no one informs them of the results. Later Hsu claims she and Dr. McKusick thought the children understood why they were giving blood samples.


Deborah imagined her mother eternally suffering the symptoms of each disease.

Rebecca Skloot, Part 3, Chapter 24

Deborah Lacks does not understand that the HeLa cells are no longer part of her mother's body, and no one takes the time to explain this to her. Thus she believes her mother experiences symptoms of every disease researchers study using her cells. Deborah is horrified to think her mother must keep suffering. She can't let go of this fear until scientist Christoph Lengauer explains the facts to her.


God, I never thought I'd see my mother under a microscope—I never dreamed this day would ever come.

Deborah Lacks, Part 3, Chapter 32

Christoph Lengauer is the only scientist who takes the time to help Deborah Lacks and her brother Zakariyya understand why their mother's cells are so important and, most crucially, explains Henrietta's cells became cancerous because of HPV, which cannot be inherited. Deborah looks at the HeLa cells and finds them beautiful; she is amazed to see what has been kept from her for so long.

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