Study Guide

George and Margaret Gey in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

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George and Margaret Gey

A Man of Vision—And Eccentricities

George Gey was the head of tissue culture at Johns Hopkins when Henrietta was being treated for cervical cancer. Gey had been actively trying to grow an immortal cell line—cells that would continuously divide, for an infinite amount of time, in culture—but he wasn't having a whole lot of luck.

Then Henrietta's cancerous cells entered his lab, and the rest is history.

But the lab itself and the processes that led to the culture of HeLa cells is a whole other story. Gey and his wife Margaret had to build that lab by hand. Gey also had to build some of the mechanisms from scratch, like his roller drum to keep the cell cultures in subtle motion while they grew.

...And His Practical Partner

Though Gey had the mind of a scientist and the hands of skilled craftsman, he often got caught up in his experiments without much thought of the consequences. He relied on his wife, Margaret, who was trained as a surgical nurse, to take care of the day-to-day details of running a proper lab.

This included the establishment of sterilization protocols that kept the lab scrupulously clean to eliminate the risk that contaminants would kill the cell cultures before they had a chance to grow. Margaret's efficiency in this area was legendary. Mary Kubicek, Gey's lab assistant, remembered dreading Margaret's shrieks if she found that any of her protocols were breached.

Good Guy or Bad Guy?

Zakariyya sums up the ethical difficulties presented by Gey's cultivation of HeLa cells:

"Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn't donate nothing. They took them and didn't ask...What really would upset Henrietta is the fact that Dr. Gey never told the family anything—we didn't know nothing about those cells and he didn't care." (169)

To be fair, there were many of failures of communication on the medical side of this issue before and after George Gey played his part in the HeLa story. The mandate to collect tissues in the first place came from Howard Jones' boss, Richard TeLinde, who needed cancerous tissue to prove his theory about how cancers spread. It never occurred to either doc to explain their needs to Henrietta, or to explain fully what the tissues would be used for.

Gey does, however, keep Henrietta's real name out of the mainstream media. He might have done it to protect her privacy, but then again, he might have done it to cover his butt. The effect? Proper recognition for the woman whose suffering made great things possible was a long time in coming.

Giving It All Away

It's pretty clear that Gey wanted to produce an immortal cell line solely to benefit scientific research and humanity as a whole. We know this because Gey gave away all his original cultures of HeLa before taking the time to produce his own research on it, or to consider if the cells could be profitable. Of course, at the time, there was no such thing as a patent to be had on a cell line.

But Gey learns the hard way that letting loose a valuable piece of intellectual/biological property in a world of profit-minded people is not the best move. Ultimately, he loses control over how HeLa cells are cultured and used and can't even provide a pure strain of HeLa to be banked by the NIH.

On the other hand, George Gey was a scientist who was willing to put his money where his mouth—or rather, his research—is. When he learns that he's dying of pancreatic cancer, he too wants to create an immortal cell line from his tumor. When this can't happen, Gey gives himself over to testing a new chemo drug in the hopes that somehow his suffering will do some good for in the world.

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