Rebecca Skloot is a journalist with a picture on her wall. The picture is worn and tattered and its subject is an African-American woman during the 1940s. The woman in that picture has a tumor growing inside her, but she has no idea that it is there. The reason that she does not know that it is there will be made apparent soon and it will be a tragedy inspiring profound sadness and greater anger in the reader.
The woman’s name was Henrietta Lacks and she has appointment to meet with doctors at what is today one of the most prestigious and respected hospitals in the entire world: John’s Hopkins. Even back when Henrietta walked into Johns Hopkins, its reputation was well known. The doctors at this respected hospital inform Henrietta that she is fine and send her on her way.
Johns Hopkins got it wrong on that first consultation. Eventually, Henrietta Lacks will find doctors worth their reputation and they will use radiation to treat the cervical cancer with which she would be diagnosed. To more precise, Johns Hopkins didn’t even try to get it right. Despite their lofty reputation, Skloot finds, a systemic practice of racism prevented proper treatment of many African-American patients like Henrietta Lacks. That racially motivated in attention to Henrietta led to overlooking the presence of cancerous tumors in Henrietta’s cervix that would eventually go on to make history as the first immortal human cell line known as HeLa. HeLa would, in turn, make history as a vital component behind research that resulted in many groundbreaking medical discoveries throughout the 21st century.
After learning that Henrietta was born in 1920 under the name Loretta Pleasant, Skloot undertakes a mission to trace her family line of Henrietta and winds up in Clover, Virginia where we learn that she married her cousin, David Day Lacks and gave birth to a mentally impaired daughter named Elsie would tragically see her life come to an end within the walls of Crownsville, a typical asylum for such children during this period of American history.
Dr. George Gey , in charge of research into tissue culture at Johns Hopkins, was engaged in experiments that aimed to create human cells capable of regenerating over an infinite period of time, thus creating what would be known as an immortal cell line. Unfortunately, his experiments produced a constant line of dead ends. Then one day he was provided with a sample of Henrietta Lack’s cervical tissue without her knowledge or permission. Amazingly, her cancer cells started to regenerate at an explosive pace. At the same time, the host of those cells—Henrietta herself—was starting to face a deterioration of her condition of an equal rate.
Rebecca Skloot finally manages to contact members of Henrietta’s family line in 1999 with the aide of Morehouse College Professor Roland Pattillo. Through Patillo she makes contact with Henrietta’s surviving daughter Deborah and her two brothers, Lawrence and Sonny. When Skloot arrives in Baltimore to meet the Lacks family, she winds up instead meeting Courtney Speed. Where the Lacks family members express no interested in meeting with Skloot, Coutney expresses great enthusiasm about publicizing Henrietta’s history.
In 1951, Dr. Gey announces his success with HeLa and starts providing it to research labs around the world. Around the same time another doctor informs Henrietta that her cancer has reached the stage where it is considered inoperable. In October 1951, Henrietta finally manages to find a way out of her intense, agonizing pain by dying. The Johns Hopkins doctors pressure her husband into allowing an autopsy so that they may study her cells and afterward Henrietta is buried in an unmarked grave. As time goes by, researchers use HeLa to help create the vaccine for polio, study viral infections and assist in the expanding knowledge of genetics.
As Skloot delves deeper in the background of Henrietta’s genetics, she discovers that she is the offspring of miscegenation during the era of slavery, but that all living descendants starkly segregate themselves into the white members of the Lack family and black members of the Lack family and never the twain shall meet. As Henrietta’s children group up without her, the suffer abuse while living with a cousin, spend time in prison for murder, convert to Islam and ultimately discover they are living in poverty while others are profiting from their mother’s cells.
Those cells are also abused as in the instance of Chester Southam injecting the cells into patients without their knowledge. A reprimand by the New York Medical Board of Regents opens up debate about the issue of medical consent and the contamination of entire cell lines through the use of HeLa. This debate ultimately becomes a case for litigation and the subject for a planned BBC documentary. A man named Cofield tricks the Lack family into an alleged plan to sue Johns Hopkins, but eventually files suit against them, which is fortunately dismissed, but the family touchy about the subject.
Finally, Skloot manages to meet with Deborah Lacks and comes to understand that she suffers from paranoia about the whole cell situation along with other medical conditions. She is also incredibly despairing about learning the real truth about her mother. A visit to lab with Henrietta’s other kids allows them to actually view their mother’s living cells. A trip to Crownsville gains them access to records and information that reveal the horrific fate that awaited Henrietta’s daughter Elsie because she died in an institution while still a teenager.
Some time later Deborah suffers a stroke and when Skloot visits a few months afterward to attend the baptism of one of Henrietta’s grandchildren, Deborah’s husband—the pastor—asks if she would be willing to share the story of Henrietta with the rest of the congregation. Skloot completes her book, but not before Deborah suffers a fatal heart attack.