Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Immortality

By Rebecca Skloot

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The Geys were determined to grow the first immortal human cells: a continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample, cells that would constantly replenish themselves and never die. (30)

Immortality means different things to the players in Henrietta's story. For the Geys, it meant a constant supply of cells for experimentation. But when that term is thrown around in front of Henrietta's family, they imagine that their wife and mother is somehow still living and feeling (and being experimented on) in research labs around the world.

But Carrel wasn't interested in immortality for the masses. He was a eugenicist: organ transplantation and life extension were ways to preserve what he saw as the superior white race, which he believed was being polluted by less intelligent and inferior stock, namely the poor, uneducated, and nonwhite. (59)

Though Carrel's surgical innovations did, in fact, help all of humankind, he wouldn't be happy to know this. Carrel's racist philosophy is scary on so many levels. How much do you know about your doctor's political beliefs? Many medical advances were often made on the backs of people who Carrel would have considered "inferior." It's probably true that if there was some medical advance that extended life dramatically, the rich would live and the poor would die.

Gey gave his lab staff careful instructions for growing GeGe, a line of cancer cells taken from his pancreas. He hoped that his cells, like Henrietta's, would become immortal. (171)

The same action which caused such pain and anxiety to the Lacks family is the one that would have given George Gey comfort. Because he understands it. For Gey, the opportunity to become scientifically immortal eases the psychological suffering he feels with his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. In a great twist of fate, Gey never got the chance to establish the GeGe cell line and so was denied his dream of living forever. Had the Lacks family had the same scientific understanding that Gey had, their experience would've been entirely different.

"The biopsy [...] has secured for the patient, Henrietta Lacks as HeLa, an immortality which has now reached 20 years. Will she live forever if nurtured by the hands of future workers? Even now Henrietta Lacks, first as Henrietta and then as HeLa, has a combined age of 51 years." (173)

Jones' and colleagues wrote this in an article on Gey's contributions to science. Notice how easily Jones makes the connection between Henrietta Lacks as a person and her immortal cells. Somehow, he's now able to see Henrietta as a person when he described the immortality that her cells have given her.

"That lady has achieved true immortality, both in the test-tube and in the hearts and minds of scientists the world over, since the value of HeLa cells in research, diagnosis, etc., is inestimable. Yet we do not know her name!" (175)

In this 1973 letter to the scientific journal Nature, researcher J. Douglas makes a plea to set the HeLa record straight. He seemed to understand that immortality of any kind does nothing for a person if they remain anonymous or wrongly named.

"It's an unfortunate thing what happened, they should still be very proud, their mother will never die as long as the medical science is around, she will always be such a famous thing." (189)

This is scientist Hsu's comment to Skloot concerning the mishandling of Henrietta's family by the scientific community. But does she get it yet? She seems to think that cellular immortality should make up for any misunderstanding or anxiety felt by the Lacks family.

As Zakariyya and Christoph walked away, she raised the vial and touched it to her lips. "You're famous," she whispered. "Just nobody knows it." (263)

Deborah's touching interaction with a vial of her mother's cells raises an interesting question: what good is immortality? She addresses the question again when she tells Skloot that she wouldn't want to live forever if it meant watching loved ones die. In the end, Deborah believes that her mother's immortality is the best kind: to live on in some form and make the world a better place.

I kept reading: "This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal. There is, of course, a physical body, so there has to be a spiritual body." (294)

When cousin Gary shows Skloot passages from the bible that speak about the resurrection body, she starts to get it: the Lacks family sees HeLa cells as Henrietta's resurrected form. Although the scientific community had been throwing the term "immortal" around for decades, there was no sense from them that they meant it in a way meaningful for the people who knew and loved Henrietta. It seems that the Lacks family figured out a way to do this by themselves.

In that moment, reading those passages, I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without a double, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta's cells makes perfect sense. (296)

She's not a Christian believer, but Skloot is able to understand the family's beliefs and see that they absolutely determine how they define Henrietta's immortality.

For Deborah and her family [...] that answer was so much more concrete than the explanation offered by science: that the immortality of Henrietta's cells had something to do with her telomeres and how HPV interacted with her DNA. The idea that God chose Henrietta as an angel who would be reborn as immortal cells made a lot more sense to them than the explanation Deborah had read earlier in Victor McKusick's genetics book [...]. (296)

Understanding Henrietta's immortality in a spiritual way (rather than a scientific way) helps the Lacks family come to terms with the existence of HeLa cells and their uses in research. Although Skloot would probably rather see them embrace a more scientific explanation, she gets how important this is to them.

"But I tell you one thing, I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you while you stay the same, and that's just sad." Then she smiled. "But maybe I'll come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world." (310)

Deborah reflects on the benefits and different forms of immortality, and maybe even the ethics of living forever. She concludes that it's only good if it helps the human race. On this, Deborah's waay ahead of some of the scientists involved in the HeLa story.

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