We flash back to April 1951, where George Gey appears on a TV show in Baltimore. Polite and handsome, he is introduced as a doctor who is going to conquer cancer. He explains to the TV audience about cells, giving them an “overview of cell structure and cancer.” He uses a bottle full of Henrietta’s cells as an example, commenting that studying them may help scientists to stop cancer once and for all.
This is when the media’s obsession with HeLa—but its complete ignorance of Henrietta—truly begins. We also witness the incredible (but partly misguided) optimism of this medical period, as George Gey announces that HeLa is going to provide a cure for cancer.
George Gey begins sending Henrietta’s cells out to a variety of scientists who want to use them for cancer research. He flies to many labs showing others his culturing techniques, and when scientists visit his lab, Gey usually sends them home with HeLa cells.
As HeLa’s fame expands, the cells themselves begin to spread as well, traveling all over the world. These parallel tracks are crucial in understanding HeLa’s true impact.
Rebecca explains why Henrietta’s cells are so precious: because they allow “scientists to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human.” They cut the cells apart, expose them to poisons and infections, and immerse them in drugs that they hope may kill cancerous cells.
Skloot makes sure that her readers understand how instantaneously essential Henrietta’s cells became for research experiments.
Although HeLa is spreading, Gey doesn’t mention Henrietta or her cells in the press, so the general public doesn’t learn about his innovation. Rebecca explains, however, that cell culture had become unpopular in the press in recent years. This began in 1912, when a French surgeon named Alexis Carrel claimed to have grown an “immortal chicken heart.” A Nobel Prize-winner, Carrel became a celebrity, and the press trumpeted that he had found the key to immortality. Carrel, however, was also a eugenicist, meaning that he believed that certain people were genetically superior to others; he thought that only certain people worthy of eternal life.
The issues of public opinion, over-optimism, and racism all come together in the figure of Dr. Alexis Carrel, who lied to the public about creating immortal cells, while also supporting racist, pseudo-scientific ideas about eugenics. As a symbol, he illustrates how terribly wrong science and even brilliant scientists can go, and helps readers to understand the deep mistrust of the medical establishment that this book often exhibits.
Rebecca describes the eccentric Carrel, who believed in telepathy and fortune telling. Newspapers and the public continued to keep track of how long the chicken heart cells had been alive, and Carrel and his assistants even sang “Happy Birthday” to them once a year. Carrel began claiming that the cells would eventually become larger than the solar system, and the press began printing reports of a giant rooster that could cross oceans. Books began warning about “the dangers of tissue cultures.”
As Skloot continues to describe the deceptive Carrel, he becomes more and more grotesque as a character. We also begin to learn about all the misinformation that the press spreads about HeLa—another pattern that will repeat over and over again throughout the book.
The real chicken-heart cells, meanwhile, turned out to be a sham. After Carrel was eventually accused of collaborating with the Nazis and died awaiting trial, a scientist named Leonard Hayflick became suspicious that no one had been able to replicate Carrel’s experiment. He found that Carrel had actually been replenishing the culture with new cells every few days. Because of this, by 1951, when George Gey begins growing Henrietta’s cells, the idea of immortal cells is thought of as distasteful, even racist, and is largely ignored.
The story of Carrel serves not only to illustrate the terrible actions of some researchers, but also to further highlight just how incredible the discovery of HeLa really was. Skloot is not saying that all scientists are misguided and manipulative—rather she is saying that scientific advancements must all be viewed through a humane and unbiased lens.