In 1970, George Gey finds out that he has a deadly form of pancreatic cancer. Before surgery, he asks his surgeons to take samples of his tumor, so that they can grow a cell line from his pancreas. He begs his staff to help make the cells immortal. When Gey is anesthetized, his doctors find that his cancer has spread to cover many different organs. Worried that cutting into the tumors might kill Gey, they do not take samples. Gey begins seeking researchers who would be willing to test experimental treatments on him, but his health continues to decline. Not long before death, he tells Margaret Gey that she can release Henrietta’sname, but she never does. He dies in November 1970.
While the Lackses are justifiably angry, Dr. Gey seems like the wrong scapegoat for this anger, despite the fact that he was the one who first took the HeLa sample (and that he assumes it’s his decision to release Henrietta’s name). Even when dying, Gey still remains committed to the scientific principles to which he has dedicated his life. He also, as he dies, still clearly carries some guilt and doubt about HeLa.
A few months after George Gey dies, Howard Jones and several other Hopkins doctors, including a geneticist named Victor McKusick, start writing an article about the history of HeLa in order to pay homage to Gey. They write that HeLa has ensured immortality for Henrietta, and praise George Gey for his legacy. This is the fist time that Henrietta’s real name is printed. It also means that the Lackses and their DNA will always be linked to the HeLa cells.
The Hopkins doctors who praise Gey continue his legacy of good intentions but bad judgment—they mean to write an article praising Gey and honoring Henrietta, but also forever link the Lackses to HeLa without their knowledge or consent. Even in this time, decades after Henrietta died, doctors are still making the same mistakes.
Three weeks after the article is published, President Richard Nixon announces the War on Cancer, pledging $1.5 billion and promising to cure cancer within five years. Researchers believe that they can develop a vaccine for a supposed cancer virus.
Of course, present-day readers know that there is still no cancer vaccine—a sign of how overly optimistic researchers can be about their own findings.
In 1972, Russian scientists assert that they’ve discovered the cancer virus; it turns out, however, that the cells they’ve found actually originated from Henrietta. This finding comes from a scientist named Walter Nelson-Rees, the director of cell culture at the Naval laboratory, who has been hired by the National Cancer Institute to combat contamination.
The contamination problem once again rears its head, but now it is also connected to the question of Henrietta’s identity.
After news of the Russian cell contamination breaks, newspapers begin reporting on the problem. Interest in Henrietta reemerges, but she is always misidentified as Helen Larsen or Helen Lane. People begin to speculate that she was Gey’s secretary or mistress, or perhaps a prostitute.
The press, too, comes back into play, once again spreading misinformation and writing ill-informed stories. Despite interest in scientific breakthroughs, reporters don’t seem to have any real desire to find out the truth about Henrietta before publishing.