The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails Symbol Analysis

Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails Symbol Icon

Henrietta’s relatives all remember her pristine fingernails and toenails, which she kept painted a vibrant red. Indeed, her female cousins only understood how sick she was once they saw how chipped her nails were becoming, as she was too weak to continue painting them. Meanwhile, the nails mean something quite different for Mary Kubicek, George Gey’s assistant. When she attends Henrietta’s autopsy, the sight of Henrietta’s painted nails makes her realize for the first time that HeLa came from the suffering of a real human being.

Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quotes below all refer to the symbol of Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Random House edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks published in 2010.
Chapter 12 Quotes

Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. “When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Mary Kubicek (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa, Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

A research assistant at the time of Henrietta's death, Mary Kubicek recounts her patient's autopsy, recalling distinctly her shock and dismay at seeing Henrietta's "chipped bright red [nail]polish." It was only at this point, she recalls, that she realized how HeLa had come "from a live woman."

Mary's account shines a bright light on how easy it is for doctors and researchers to dehumanize their patients. Although Mary is a decent and moral person, she has only been working with Henrietta's cancer cells--which of course feel far removed from an actual person.

Henrietta's toenails, however, deliver a sharp rebuke to the young researcher. In that moment, she sees Henrietta not as a test subject, but as a human woman who--not too long ago--engaged in activities as relatable as painting her toenails.

The vast majority of researchers who work with HeLa, of course, have never had such an experience. To them, HeLa is merely a useful tool, rather than the final remnant of a now-dead woman. 

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Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails Symbol Timeline in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The timeline below shows where the symbol Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails appears in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5: Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
...no one remembers Henrietta feeling ill. The author describes Henrietta’s beauty, especially noting her well-kept fingernails and toenails, which she always paints red. Sadie describes Henrietta’sfriendly nature. The only person who... (full context)
Chapter 12: The Storm
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
...saving pieces of her tumors. As she watches Gey work, Mary is struck by Henrietta’s toenails with their chipped, red nail polish. In the present, Mary recounts seeing the toenails and... (full context)
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
...and Fred, meanwhile, have spent the day digging a grave. When Sadie sees Henrietta’s chipped toenail polish , she begins to cry; “Henrietta would rather have died than let her polish get... (full context)
Chapter 28: After London
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
...grows angrier, falling silent only when Deborah asks Mary to tell the story about Henrietta’s toenail polish . (full context)
Chapter 34: The Medical Records
Family and Faith Theme Icon
...from staying up with the records, Rebecca eats breakfast with Deborah, who has painted her fingernails red (just like her mother’s). Deborah reassures Rebecca that, “We’re okay.” (full context)