The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-15


Chapter 10. The Other Side of the Tracks … 1999

Rebecca goes to Virginia to seek the extended Lacks family. The town of Clover is desolate and dilapidated—the roof of the old movie theater has caved in, most of the shops are empty. She asks a lone man where Lacks Town is, and he points her across the tracks.

The area across the tracks is even more run-down. Many of the houses there are one-room shacks with gaps in the wallboards. She drives around this area until a man named Hector Henry asks if she's lost. When she explains she's seeking to learn about Henrietta, he invites her inside.

Hector explains that he remembers Henrietta as a kind, lovely person who would take care of him when he was ill (he had permanent damage from a case of polio as a child). Most of the family doesn't remember much about her, but he does.

Hector comments how odd it is that the HeLa cells are so prolific, and tells Rebecca that he thinks Henrietta's illness must be man-made or spirit-made. He claims to have seen spirits of sickness around Lacks Town, including a large hog that dragged its chains behind it. Throughout this conversation, the radio blasts a recording of a local minister performing a faith healing.

Hector says he isn't sure if it was a spirit or a person who made Henrietta sick, but he's certain it wasn't natural, because cancer cells don't just keep growing after a person dies.

Chapter 11. “The Devil of Pain Itself” … 1951

Henrietta's cancer continues to grow, causing her excruciating pain. She requires constant blood transfusions because her kidneys can no longer function.

Henrietta's cousin Emmett Lacks organizes a group of his friends and coworkers to donate blood for Henrietta. She often made them food and talked to them during their lonely and difficult time in Baltimore, and they care about her.

The men arrive to find Henrietta lying limply in bed with her cousin Sadie and her sister Gladys near her. Suddenly Henrietta starts wailing and convulsing with pain, and the men are hustled out. When Rebecca interviews Emmett years later, he says that he's not surprised her cancer cells proved immortal, because her cancer was especially terrible.

Soon, Henrietta's doctors discontinue all medications except painkillers. Henrietta wakes disoriented, but soon realizes where she is. She tells her sister Gladys that she needs to make sure that Day takes care of the children, especially Deborah, who was only a year old when Henrietta went into the hospital. Henrietta dies not long afterward.

Chapter 12. The Storm … 1951

After Henrietta died, George Gey wanted to perform an autopsy. The doctors needed to obtain permission from Henrietta's living relatives; someone asked Day twice, and he refused the first time but gave in the second.

Mary, the Gey's assistant, is nauseated at the sight of the corpse but steels herself to collect more samples. The coroner removes samples from Henrietta's body, all of them covered in hundreds of small tumors. Suddenly, Mary notices that Henrietta's toes are painted bright red, and it hits her that all the cells she's taken have come from a real woman, someone who once sat in her bathroom and carefully painted her toes.

Henrietta's body is sent back to Clover, Virginia, and buried in her family's cemetery. However, just as her coffin is being lowered into the ground, a massive storm starts up, and a powerful wind tears a roof of a barn and knocks out power. One of Henrietta's cousins later said that Henrietta must have been trying to tell them all something that day.

Chapter 13. The HeLa Factory … 1951–1953

Shortly after Henrietta’s death, plans were developed for a factory to mass-produce the HeLa cell line. This effort was necessitated by the massive polio epidemic of 1951. In 1952, Jonas Salk had developed the world’s first polio vaccine, but couldn’t offer it to the public until it had been proven to be safe and effective. This process required mixing blood serum from newly vaccinated children with live poliovirus and cells in culture; if the vaccine was effective, the serum from the vaccinated child’s blood would protect the other cells in the culture.

The problem was that cells needed in the test were not available on a massive scale – until the advent of HeLa. HeLa cells divided until they ran out of space and were actually more susceptible to the virus than average cells, which made them ideal for the tests. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which spearheaded the polio vaccines, turned to the Geys for help.

The Geys began to ship HeLa cells to other researchers, which marked the first time that live cells were shipped through the mail. One of the researchers who received HeLa cells was William Scherer, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota. With the help of Charles Bynum, a Black scientist and civil rights activist, Scherer established a HeLa Distribution Center at the Tuskeegee Institute. Bynum supported this because it would provide jobs for Black scientists in the area.

The facility at Tuskeegee eventually grew to include thirty-five scientists and technicians who grew and shipped about twenty thousand tubes of HeLa every week. Many of the scientists were Black and female; paradoxically, they accomplished this innovative scientific advancement at the same time and the same place that the infamous Tuskeegee syphilis studies were taking place.

The HeLa cells allowed researchers to prove the effectiveness of the polio vaccine, and other researchers began to run tests on them as well. They exposed the HeLa cells to viruses to better understand the way they affected human cells; this also allowed scientists to develop ways to counter these dangerous effects. The HeLa cell line always allowed scientists to develop ways to freeze cells (which allowed cells to be shipped or halted in different phases of development), and provided the impetus to standardize methods in the field of tissue culture. Finally, scientists were working with the same material and the same techniques. The HeLa line also allowed scientists to clone human cells for the first time, which would lead to developments such as the cloning of Dolly the sheep.

Additionally, HeLa allowed for major advancements in genetics. In 1953, scientists accidentally put the wrong liquid into a sample of HeLa cells, but this fortunate accident allowed scientists to visualize the 48 chromosomes of the human cell clearly for the first time. This allowed physicians to identify chromosomal disorders such as Klinefelter and Downs syndromes.

All of these developments were too much for the Tuskeegee HeLa distribution center to keep up with, so two other entrepreneurs (Samuel Reader and Monroe Vincent) established their own Microbiologists Associates Cell Factory in Bethesda, Maryland. They used state-of-the-art production techniques to mass produce HeLa cell lines at an astronomical rate, eventually putting the Tuskegee lab out of business.

The uses of HeLa in research were nearly endless. Cosmetic companies used them instead of animals to test the safety of their products; nuclear scientists used them to test the effects of radiation on human cells; researchers used them to test the effects of chemotherapy and medication.

Gey’s colleagues tried to persuade him to publish papers demonstrating his role in these advances, but he argued that he was always too busy. He was often so distracted by his research that his wife Margaret had to write and publish his findings for him. Gey was also a bit annoyed that HeLa was no longer under his control, but he was also relieved that he didn’t have to handle all the distribution himself.

Through all of these advances, people began to wonder about the woman behind the cells.

Chapter 14. Helen Lane … 1953–1954

It was in 1953 that the first article, published in the Minneapolis Star, came out about Henrietta Lacks. However, they got her name wrong, calling her Henrietta Lakes. Journalists such as Roland Berg hounded TeLinde and Henrietta’s other doctors for information about her identity, but they insisted on keeping her information private, so it is possible that someone gave the incorrect name on purpose.

Gey was also contacted by a reporter from Collier’s, but refused to disclose patient information. The Collier’s publication referred incorrectly to a young woman named Helen L., though it did correctly identify that the cells came from her cervical cancer. No one is quite sure who gave the journalist the name Helen L. or Helen Lane, but this became the name most frequently associated with the woman who had originated the HeLa cell line. Because of this, Henrietta’s family had no idea that her cells were still being used.

Chapter 15. “Too Young to Remember” … 1951–1965

The three youngest children – Deborah, Sonny, and Joe – had no idea what had happened to their mother. After Henrietta’s death, her cousins came from all over to look after her children. One of them unfortunately infected the children with tuberculosis, and Henrietta’s youngest son Joe spent nearly a year in isolation in a hospital ward with a particularly terrible case of the disease.

Day was working two jobs at the time, so Lawrence looked after the younger children until he was drafted into the Korean War. After this, Ethel, the cousin who had hated Henrietta, moved in. She started sleeping with Day and tormenting Henrietta’s children, depriving them of food and affection, forcing them to perform hard labor and beating them when they slacked. She was particularly vicious to Joe, and would sometimes force him to stand for hours in the corner of their cold basement. Joe turned into a mean, cruel child, and the family remembers him getting in trouble for shooting strangers with his BB gun.

Lawrence, who had returned from the war and moved in with his girlfriend Bobette, eventually learned what was happening and took in his younger siblings. However, though Joe finally escaped the abuse, Deborah was unable to escape the attention of Galen, who constantly sexually abused her. Galen would frequently touch her and expose himself to her, and Deborah frantically tried to flee from him. At the same time, he also showered her with gifts and pretended to be the ideal substitute father, which diverted attention from his monstrous behavior.

After one particularly terrible incident where Galen attempted to pull Deborah into his car and hit her in the face when she refused, Bobette confronted the crying, scared twelve-year-old girl, and Deborah confessed to her everything that Galen had done. Bobette told Galen and Edith that if either of them every touched the Lacks children again, she would kill them.

Bobette told Deborah that she didn’t have to tolerate the sexual advances of her relatives, and she should fight them if they tried to touch her. She also encouraged Deborah to stay in school despite her hearing problems, which affected her grades.

Deborah grew up constantly wondered about her mother and her missing sister Elsie, who died in an institution when she was only fifteen. None of her living relatives would tell her anything about them.


The description of Henrietta's death from cancer is graphic and may be disturbing to some readers. We urge readers with questions about cervical cancer to consult the CDC website on the disease (found in the Generic Citations section of this note). In sum, cervical cancer is a highly preventable disease that today has a relatively low death rate. Pre-cancerous changes that may lead to cervical cancer can be detected with a Pap smear and treated appropriately before they even turn into cancer. Additionally, a vaccine that protects against HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer) is widely available.

Rebecca's tenacity and generosity may have made it possible for her to establish connections with the Lacks family that eluded other readers. Unlike many of the other white reporters or scientists who made contact with the family over the years, Rebecca is primarily motivated by her own curiosity about Henrietta. She also treats the family well, not being condescending to them but also not assuming that they know everything about the cells. She is also patient with them, accepting that Sonny may not want to talk to her and instead reaching out to the Lacks cousins who live in Clover.

Henrietta's chipped toenail polish elicits surprising reactions from different characters. When Mary Kubicek seems them while performing an autopsy on Henrietta, she is suddenly reminded that this corpse before her was once a woman with a family and children. When Henrietta's female relatives see her chipped toes, they're certain she faced agonizing pain in her last few days because the Henrietta they knew would never have let herself become so unkempt. Like the ubiquitous photo of Henrietta with her hands on her hips, this detail serves to humanize Henrietta.

The spirit boar that Cootie describes on pg. 95 connects back to themes of the supernatural. Cootie insists that it's a spirit of sickness, and perhaps an explanatory factor for Henrietta's illness and the HeLa cell line - as he points out "Regular cancer don't keep on growing after a person die" (pg. 95).

Chapter 15 introduces the reader to the tragic experiences of Henrietta's children following her death. Day ignored Henrietta's urging to look after the children and instead took two jobs in order to support his children, so Henrietta's cruel cousin Ethel moved in to look after the children while Day was at work. Ethel had hated Henrietta, so she abused Henrietta's children horribly, especially Joe/Zakariyya. Ethel's husband Galen also sexually abused young Deborah. Towards the end of the book, Zakariyya comments that if his mother had lived, he might have been a better person (pg. 283). If Henrietta had lived, she would have looked after her children and ensured that they were not abused by a cruel and vindictive relative.

The location of the HeLa Distribution Center at the Tuskeegee Institute is ironic because of the institution's connection with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Rebecca Skloot masterfully describes this contradiction: "Black scientists and technicians, many of whom were women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus - and at the very same time - that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies" (pg. 112).