Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 22

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Chapter 22

"The Fame She So Richly Deserves" (1970-1973)

  • Skloot tells us that in 1970, George Gey learned that he had pancreatic cancer.
  • It was his wish that the doctors operating on him to remove his tumor take a sample of the tissue, so that he, too, could become the founder of an immortal cell line and help researchers.
  • But the surgeons found that the cancer was inoperable and didn't want to kill Gey by cutting into the cancer. No immortal cell line for him.
  • He still wanted to help science as much as possible, so Gey underwent an experimental chemo treatment. The treatments themselves nearly killed him.
  • Before his death, he told Mary Kubicek, his lab tech, that it would be okay to release Henrietta's real name.
  • After Gey died, Howard Jones took another look at Henrietta's biopsy and realized that her tumor was misdiagnosed. It was really a much more aggressive type of cervical cancer.
  • In his history of the HeLa cell, Jones said that Henrietta had gained a type of immortality in scientific circles.
  • The most important thing about that article—at least for our purposes—is that Jones used Henrietta's correct name for the first time.
  • Around this time, President Nixon declared a "war on cancer" and threw a lot of money at cancer research for the following three years. Now scientists had to rise to the challenge and find a cure.
  • But HeLa cell contamination continued to be a problem (recall that not all scientists took Gartler's "HeLa bomb" revelations seriously).
  • When Russian scientists claimed to have found a cancer virus in Russian cells, it turns out they were contaminated by HeLa.
  • The media grabbed onto the contamination and ran with it, proclaiming that cancer cells from a dead woman were taking over.
  • So interest in Henrietta peaked again, though the media still used the wrong name to identify her (Jones' paper didn't reach a wide audience).
  • Some scientists wanted to set the record straight concerning Henrietta's identity, because they felt she deserved recognition for her contribution to science.
  • Howard Jones finally stepped forward and answered an appeal for Henrietta's identity issued by the journal Nature.
  • The long-standing errors concerning Henrietta's name were suddenly corrected on a large scale and everybody now knew the name of HeLa's "donor."

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