The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Rebecca explains that considering how many people knew Henrietta’s name, it was impossible that the info wouldn’t be leaked eventually. On November 2, 1953, the Minneapolis Star publishes Henrietta’s identity, but uses the wrong name, calling her Henrietta Lakes.
A new pattern now arises in the book: that of journalists repeatedly seeking out Henrietta’s identity, getting it wrong, and publishing anyway.
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Roland H. Berg, an NFIP press officer, contacts Gey saying that he wants to write an article about HeLa. Gey replies that he will not allow him to publish Henrietta’sname. Berg fires back that the article will not be interesting without Henrietta’s identity. Rebecca explains that such an article “would have forever connected Henrietta and her family with the cells and medical information…derived from their DNA.” It also would have informed the Lackses about the existence of HeLa.
Gey once again acts with good intent, protecting Henrietta and her family’s identity from a curious reporter. Even his protective act, however, has unintended consequences, since it means that the Lackses continue to live unaware of HeLa’s existence. This episode illustrates the complex issues bound up in any discussion of HeLa.
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Gey sends Berg’sletter to TeLinde and other officials at Hopkins asking what he should do. TeLinde replies that the story can still be “interesting” without releasing Henrietta’s name. Gey responds to Berg saying that the article could still work with a false name, but adds that he could be convinced otherwise.
The group of doctors discussing Henrietta’s identity have good intentions, but also entirely miss the point; they believe that it is their job to decide whether or not to release Henrietta’s identity, when it should be up to her family.
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Gey never tells Berg that the name in the Minneapolis Star article is wrong, nor does Berg ever write the story. A few months later, a reporter named Bill Davidson contacts Gey. This time Gey says that he must approve the final article and that the magazine must not include Henrietta’s“personal story or full name.” In May 1954, Davidson writes about cell culturing, saying that it may help cure nearly every known disease, and crediting the cells of a woman he calls “Helen L.” He also asserts that the sample was taken from Henrietta after she died, not before. Rebecca reports that there is no record of how these two pieces of misinformation originated, but that they likely came from someone in Hopkins.
The issue of Henrietta’s identity only becomes more thorny and complex as more reporters begin to write (inaccurately) about her. Although Gey intended to protect Henrietta and her family by not releasing her name, he has instead ensured that Henrietta will not be recognized or honored for the massive contribution that she has made to science. Once again, he has clearly made decisions that should actually be up to her family.
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Decades later, a Rolling Stone reporter questions Margaret Gey about the name Helen Lane, and she says that it was simply the result of confusion. One of George Gey’scolleagues, however, asserts that Gey created a pseudonym on purpose in order to keep journalists off the scent of Henrietta’sidentity. If this was the aim, Rebecca says, it worked; from the fifties until the seventies, articles identified the originator of the HeLa cells as Helen Lane or Helen Larson, but never Henrietta Lacks. For this reason, “her family had no idea her cells were alive.”
Skloot makes sure that her readers are fully aware of the consequences of confusion over Henrietta’s identity: first of all, the scientific community has no idea (and makes no attempt to find out) who is responsible for the cells fueling their innovations and research. Second, the Lackses have utterly no idea about what is happening to their mother’s cells, let alone that people are making a profit off of them.
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