Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 3

By Rebecca Skloot

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Chapter 3

Diagnosis and Treatment (1951)

  • Howard Jones got the results of Henrietta's biopsy quite quickly. The news wasn't good: stage I cancer of the cervix.
  • Skloot tells us a little bit about the conversation that top gynecologists were having about cervical cancer around that time.
  • Specifically, we learn about Richard Wesley TeLinde, the boss of Henrietta's doctor, Howard Jones.
  • TeLinde argued that cervical carcinoma in situ (Henrietta's diagnosis), considered a "non-invasive" cancer, can still metastasize or spread, becoming something more serious if not treated.
  • Not everyone was convinced. It had only been 10 years since the Pap smear was introduced into preventative medicine, and it still wasn't being used frequently or properly to diagnose abnormal cervical cells.
  • TeLinde planned a study to prove his theory and knew Hopkins was a good place to find research subjects: lots of poor black women being treated for free.
  • Their "participation" in the research was considered payback for the free services.
  • TeLinde also wanted to get tissues from the cervix to grow outside the body. If he could study them under a microscope, he could show that the two types of cancer looked the same.
  • So he turned to George Gey to help him out. Gey was head of tissue culture research at Hopkins, and he wanted badly to grow the first live human cells outside the body.
  • But there was a problem: human cells tended to die quickly in a lab setting, rather than thriving and dividing.
  • TeLinde needed Gey's help, so he offered Gey cell samples from his cervical cancer patients. One of them happened to be Henrietta Lacks.
  • When Henrietta found out she had cancer, she didn't tell her family. She had Day drive her back to Hopkins for treatment.
  • This treatment was pretty wicked by today's standards: the doctor placed radium inside Henrietta's cervix and sewed it up.
  • While he was operating, he also took samples of her tumor, which he sent to Gey's lab for culturing.

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