George Gey’s assistant, a young woman named Mary Kubicek, is eating. The lab around her is filled with samples, and one of the walls is lined with cages full of lab animals. Gey comes to tell Mary that he’s left her Henrietta’s sample to work with. She reacts without enthusiasm, even though she knows that the longer the cells live in the culture, the more likely they are to die. After years without a successful immortal cell line, she has grown tired of her task.
The narrative’s routine tone continues as readers meet Mary Kubicek, another vital figure in the story of both HeLa and Henrietta. Mary’s jaded reaction to Henrietta’s cells helps us to understand how unlikely it was that scientists would grow a human cell line—and therefore how amazing and rare HeLa is.
We learn about the obstacles to successfully growing immortal cells—first of all, scientists did not know what exactly cells needed to survive, or how to supply them with those nutrients. Gey, with his wife Margaret Gey, has been trying for years to develop the perfect “culture medium” with which to feed the cells.
Skloot continues to explain more about what it means to grow an immortal human cell line.
Even trickier than finding the perfect medium, however, is the problem of contamination. Bacteria and multiple other microorganisms can easily get into cultures from people’s hands, breath, or from dust particles in the air. As a result Margaret Gey, trained as a surgical nurse, has become obsessed with cleanliness. She has even hired a woman named Minnie whose only job is to clean the glassware used in the lab.
Having humanized Henrietta and her family, Skloot now begins to do the same thing for the researchers who created HeLa. Small details such as Margaret’s obsession with cleanliness help us to think of these researchers as people, allowing us to sympathize with them as well as with the Lackses.
Mary Kubicek follows the sterilization rules to the letter before working with Henrietta’s sample. This process done, Mary uses forceps and a scalpel to cut the sample ofHenrietta’s cervix into tiny, one-millimeter squares before dropping them onto clots of chicken blood at the bottoms of “dozens of test tubes.” She then covers the sample in culture medium, stops up the tubes, and labels them with the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names: “HeLa.”
Skloot takes the time to describe in minute detail every step that Mary goes through as she preserves Henrietta’s cells. This allows her to clearly explain the process of cell culturing while also increasing the suspense of the narrative (even though we basically already know the outcome).
The author gives us background on George Gey: he was raised in Pittsburgh, where his family lived in poverty. After paying his way through university, Gey combined a microscope with a “time-lapse motion picture camera to capture live cells on film.” He worked in Hopkins’basement, and employed a lab assistant to sleep by the camera at night to ensure that it was remaining stable. Using this process, Gey, along with his mentor Warren Lewis, was able to film the incredibly slow process of cell growth. While Margaret Gey is strict and methodical, George is mischievous and impulsive.
The trend of humanizing doctors as well as patients continues as readers learn more about George Gey’s personal and professional life. Doing so makes it less easy to “choose sides” in the coming feud between the Lacks family and the medical establishment. Although the Lackses’ anger is totally justified, the physicians like Gey who were responsible for the success of HeLa had mostly good intentions.
The most important innovation George Gey had discovered at the time was called the “roller-tube culturing technique,” in which he uses a large rotating device with holes for special test tubes (called roller tubes) to slowly but steadily rotate test tube cultures in order to keep the culture medium in motion, just as blood and fluids move about inside the human body. After she finishes cutting the samples from Henrietta, Mary Kubicek inserts them into the device and turns it on.
Once again, Skloot takes time to explain an important mechanism—“the roller-tube culturing technique”—that will help make HeLa the scientific breakthrough that it is.
Henrietta, meanwhile, is in the hospital after her first radium treatment. Doctors have performed many invasive examinations on her, and report that she seems ready to go home, instructing her to return in two and a half weeks for her second dose.
By cutting quickly between the narratives of HeLa and Henrietta, Skloot reminds readers that the two are inextricably linked—and that a desperately ill person is the source of the cells in question.
Mary checks on Henrietta’scells. Although she initially doesn’t believe that they’re growing, two days after Henrietta is sent home, Mary finds small cell growths at the bottom of each tube. Even then, she remains sure that the cells will die soon; instead, they double in size every morning. George Gey remains cautious, telling Mary that the cells could die at any time. Instead, the abnormal cancer cells continue their unprecedented growth, multiplying twenty times faster than Henrietta’s normal cells, which died soon after being put in culture. All the cancer cells need to survive and thrive is “food and warmth.” Gey begins to tell his colleagues that his lab may have created the world’s first immortal human cell line. When his colleagues ask for samples for themselves, Gey agrees.
We once again shift quickly back from Henrietta to HeLa, further cementing the simultaneous connection and contrast between the ill woman and the cells that she has unknowingly donated to science. Now, however, the cells have begun to live independently of Henrietta—they have become immortal, while Henrietta’s own mortality is rapidly approaching. Although Gey and his team are conscious only of their scientific breakthrough, readers are acutely aware that their success comes at the cost of Henrietta’s health.