Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 4

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 4

The Birth of HeLa (1951)

  • Since all human cell cultures ultimately died in the lab, George Gey's assistant, Mary Kubicek wasn't too excited about Henrietta's cancer cells when they arrived in her lab.
  • It was boring, painstaking work to culture these cells, so Mary was not feeling it at this point.
  • Skloot tells us that Gey's wife, Margaret, helped to establish the process by which cells were nourished and kept sterile (contamination could kill the cells or taint them).
  • Mary had to go through a series of procedures to ensure sterility of the workspace before she tackled Henrietta's cells.
  • When she finally got the cells into their proper tubes, she named the specimen "HeLa" according to the lab's naming protocol: first two letters of subject's first and last names.
  • She didn't know it, but history was being made.
  • Then off went the cells to the incubator, which was built by George Gey.
  • Cut to Gey's backstory: a poor guy who worked his way through a biology degree at U of Pittsburgh; can build anything; created the lab at Hopkins quite literally with his own hands.
  • He'd captured live cells dividing by rigging a camera to a microscope and monitoring it around the clock.
  • Along with his genius came some eccentricities: he was a bit reckless, and didn't give much thought to the consequences of his actions. His wife, Margaret, was more stable and meticulous.
  • Back to Henrietta: after two days in the hospital, she seemed to be doing well. Docs removed the radium from her cervix and sent her home. She had to return soon for another treatment.
  • In Gey's lab, not much was happening to those cells of Henrietta's. Until about two days later, when they start to grow uncontrollably.
  • Gey was ecstatic: he had his immortal, wildly growing human cells. And now his colleagues wanted some for themselves. Gey had no problem with sharing.

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