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[2 of 5] The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Chapters 8-15, by Rebecca Skloot (2010) - 2023-24

Author: Rebecca Skloot

“Chapters 8-15.” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, Broadway Paperbacks, an Imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2011.

8 – “A Miserable Specimen” (1951)

In early June, Henrietta told her doctors several times that she thought the cancer was spreading, that she could feel it moving through her, but they found nothing wrong with her. “The patient states that she feels fairly well,” one doctor wrote in her chart, “however she continues to complain of some vague lower abdominal discomfort. … No evidence of recurrence. Return in one month.”

There’s no indication that Henrietta questioned him; like most patients in the 1950s, she deferred to anything her doctors said. This was a time when “benevolent deception” was a common practice—doctors often withheld even the most fundamental information from their patients, sometimes not giving them any diagnosis at all. They believed it was best not to con-fuse or upset patients with frightening terms they might not understand, like cancer. Doctors knew best, and most patients didn’t question that.

Especially black patients in public wards. This was 1951 in Baltimore, segregation was law, and it was understood that black people didn’t question white people’s professional judgment. Many black patients were just glad to be getting treatment, since discrimination in hospitals was widespread.

There’s no way of knowing whether or how Henrietta’s treatment would have differed if she’d been white. According to Howard Jones, Henrietta got the same care any white patient would have; the biopsy, the radium treatment, and radiation were all standard for the day. But several studies have shown that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illnesses than white patients. And once hospitalized, they got fewer pain medications, and had higher mortality rates.

All we can know for sure are the facts of Henrietta’s medical records: a few weeks after the doctor told her she was fine, she went back to Hopkins saying that the “discomfort” she’d complained about last time was now an “ache” in both sides. But the doctor’s entry was identical to the one weeks earlier: “No evidence of recurrence. Return in one month.”

Two and a half weeks later, Henrietta’s abdomen hurt, and she could barely urinate. The pain made it hard to walk. She went back to Hopkins, where a doctor passed a catheter to empty her bladder, then sent her home. Three days later, when she returned complaining once again of pain, a doctor pressed on her abdomen and felt a “stony hard” mass. An X-ray showed that it was attached to her pelvic wall, nearly blocking her urethra. The doctor on duty called for Jones and several others who’d treated Henrietta; they all examined her and looked at the X-ray. “Inoperable,” they said. Only weeks after a previous entry declared her healthy, one of the doctors wrote, “The patient looks chronically ill. She is obviously in pain.” He sent her home to bed.

Sadie would later describe Henrietta’s decline like this: “Hennie didn’t fade away, you know, her looks, her body, it didn’t just fade. Like some peoples be sick in the bed with cancer and they look so bad. But she didn’t. The only thing you could tell was in her eyes. Her eyes were tellin you that she wasn’t gonna be alive no more.”

Until that point, no one except Sadie, Margaret, and Day knew Henrietta was sick. Then, sud-denly, everyone knew. When Day and the cousins walked home from Sparrows Point after each shift, they could hear Henrietta from a block away, wailing for the Lord to help her. When Day drove her back to Hopkins for X-rays the following week, stone-hard tumors filled the in-side of her abdomen: one on her uterus, one on each kidney and on her urethra. Just a month after a note in her medical record said she was fine, another doctor wrote, “In view of the rap-id extension of the disease process the outlook is quite poor.” The only option, he said, was “further irradiation in the hopes that we may at least relieve her pain.”

Henrietta couldn’t walk from the house to the car, but either Day or one of the cousins managed to get her to Hopkins every day for radiation. They didn’t realize she was dying. They thought the doctors were still trying to cure her.

Each day, Henrietta’s doctors increased her dose of radiation, hoping it would shrink the tumors and ease the pain until her death. Each day the skin on her abdomen burned blacker and blacker, and the pain grew worse.

On August 8, just one week after her thirty-first birthday, Henrietta arrived at Hopkins for her treatment, but this time she said she wanted to stay. Her doctor wrote, “Patient has been complaining bitterly of pain and she seems genuinely miserable. She has to come in from a considerable distance and it is felt that she deserves to be in the hospital where she can be better cared for.”

After Henrietta checked into the hospital, a nurse drew blood and labeled the vial COLORED, then stored it in case Henrietta needed transfusions later. A doctor put Henrietta’s feet in stirrups once again, to take a few more cells from her cervix at the request of George Gey, who wanted to see if a second batch would grow like the first. But Henrietta’s body had become so contaminated with toxins normally flushed from the system in urine, her cells died immediately in culture.

During Henrietta’s first few days in the hospital, the children came with Day to visit her, but when they left, she cried and moaned for hours. Soon the nurses told Day he couldn’t bring the children anymore, because it upset Henrietta too much. After that, Day would park the Buick behind Hopkins at the same time each day and sit on a little patch of grass on Wolfe Street with the children, right under Henrietta’s window. She’d pull herself out of bed, press her hands and face to the glass, and watch her children play on the lawn. But within days, Henrietta couldn’t get herself to the window anymore.

Her doctors tried in vain to ease her suffering. “Demerol does not seem to touch the pain,” one wrote, so he tried morphine. “This doesn’t help too much either.” He gave her Dromoran. “This stuff works,” he wrote. But not for long. Eventually one of her doctors tried injecting pure alcohol straight into her spine. “Alcohol injections ended in failure,” he wrote.

New tumors seemed to appear daily—on her lymph nodes, hip bones, labia—and she spent most days with a fever up to 105. Her doctors stopped the radiation treatment and seemed as defeated by the cancer as she was. “Henrietta is still a miserable specimen,” they wrote. “She groans.” “She is constantly nauseated and claims she vomits everything she eats.” “Patient acutely upset… very anxious.” “As far as I can see we are doing all that can be done.”

There is no record that George Gey ever visited Henrietta in the hospital, or said anything to her about her cells. And everyone I talked to who might know said that Gey and Henrietta never met. Everyone, that is, except Laure Aurelian, a microbiologist who was Gey’s col-league at Hopkins.

“I’ll never forget it,” Aurelian said. “George told me he leaned over Henrietta’s bed and said, ‘Your cells will make you immortal.’ He told Henrietta her cells would help save the lives of countless people, and she smiled. She told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.”

9 – Turner Station (1999)

A few days after my first conversation with Day, I drove from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to meet his son, David “Sonny” Lacks Jr. He’d finally called me back and agreed to meet, saying he’d gotten worn out from my number showing up on his pager. I didn’t know it then, but he’d made five panicked phone calls to Pattillo, asking questions about me before calling.

The plan was that I’d page Sonny when I got to Baltimore, then he’d pick me up and take me to his brother Lawrence’s house to meet their father and—if I was lucky—Deborah. So I checked in to the downtown Holiday Inn, sat on the bed, phone in my lap, and dialed Sonny’s pager. No reply.

I stared through my hotel room window at a tall, Gothic-looking brick tower across the street with a huge clock at the top. It was a weatherbeaten silver, with big letters spelling B-R-O-M-O-S-E-L-T-Z-E-R in a circle around its face. I watched the hands move slowly past the letters, paged Sonny every few minutes, and waited for the phone to ring.

Eventually I grabbed the fat Baltimore phone book, opened to the Ls, and ran my finger down a long line of names: Annette Lacks … Charles Lacks … I figured I’d call every Lacks in the book asking if they knew Henrietta. But I didn’t have a cell phone and didn’t want to tie up the line, so I paged Sonny again, then lay back on the bed, phone and White Pages still in my lap. I started rereading a yellowed copy of a 1976 Rolling Stone article about the Lackses by a writer named Michael Rogers—the first reporter ever to contact Henrietta’s family. I’d read it many times, but wanted every word fresh in my mind.

Halfway through the article, Rogers wrote, “I am sitting on the seventh floor of the down-town Baltimore Holiday Inn. Through the thermopane picture window is a huge public clock in which the numerals have been replaced by the characters B-R-O-M-O-S-E-L-T-Z-E-R; in my lap is a telephone, and the Baltimore White Pages.”

I bolted upright, suddenly feeling like I’d been sucked into a Twilight Zone episode. More than two decades earlier—when I was just three years old—Rogers had gone through those same White Pages. “Half way through the ‘Lacks’ listings it becomes clear that just about everybody had known Henrietta,” he wrote. So I opened the phone book again and started dialing, hoping I’d find one of those people who knew her. But they didn’t answer their phones, they hung up on me, or they said they’d never heard of Henrietta. I dug out an old newspaper article where I’d seen Henrietta’s Turner Station address: 713 New Pittsburgh Avenue. I looked at four maps before finding one where Turner Station wasn’t covered by ads or blow-up grids of other neighborhoods.

It turned out Turner Station wasn’t just hidden on the map. To get there, I had to drive past the cement wall and fence that blocked it from the interstate, across a set of tracks, past churches in old storefronts, rows of boarded-up houses, and a buzzing electrical generator as big as a football field. Finally I saw a dark wooden sign saying WELCOME TO TURNERS STATION in the parking lot of a fire-scorched bar with pink tasseled curtains.

To this day no one’s entirely sure what the town is actually called, or how to spell it. Some-times it’s plural (Turners Station), other times possessive (Turner’s Station), but most often it’s singular (Turner Station). It was originally deeded as “Good Luck,” but never quite lived up to the name.

When Henrietta arrived there in the forties, the town was booming. But the end of World War II brought cutbacks at Sparrows Point. Baltimore Gas and Electric demolished three hundred homes to make room for a new power plant, leaving more than 1,300 homeless, most of them black. More and more land was zoned for industrial use, which meant more houses torn down. People fled for East Baltimore or back to the country, and the population of Turner Station dropped by half before the end of the fifties. By the time I got there, it was about one thousand and falling steadily, because there were few jobs.

In Henrietta’s day, Turner Station was a town where you never locked your doors. Now there was a housing project surrounded by a 13,000-foot-long brick-and-cement security wall in the field where Henrietta’s children once played. Stores, nightclubs, cafés, and schools had closed, and drug dealers, gangs, and violence were on the rise. But Turner Station still had more than ten churches.

The newspaper article where I’d gotten Henrietta’s address quoted a local woman, Courtney Speed, who owned a grocery store and had created a foundation devoted to building a Henrietta Lacks museum. But when I got to the lot where Speed’s Grocery was supposed to be, I found a gray, rust-stained mobile home, its broken windows covered with wire. The sign out front had a single red rose painted on it, and the words REVIVING THE SPIRIT TO RE-CAPTURE THE VISION. PROVERBS 29:18. Six men gathered on the front steps, laughing. The oldest, in his thirties, wore red slacks, red suspenders, a black shirt, and a driving cap. Another wore an oversized red and white ski jacket. They were surrounded by younger men of various shades of brown in sagging pants. The two men in red stopped talking, watchedme drive by slowly, then kept on laughing.

Turner Station is less than a mile across in any direction, its horizon lined with sky-scraper-sized shipping cranes and smokestacks billowing thick clouds from Sparrows Point. As I drove in circles looking for Speed’s Grocery, children stopped playing in the streets to stare and wave. They ran between matching red-brick houses and past women hanging fresh laundry, following me as their mothers smiled and waved too.

I drove by the trailer with the men out front so many times, they started waving at me with each pass. I did the same with Henrietta’s old house. It was a unit in a brown brick building divided into four homes, with a chain-link fence, several feet of grass out front, and three steps leading up to a small cement stoop. A child watched me from behind Henrietta’s old screen door, waving and playing with a stick.

I waved back at everyone and feigned surprise each time the group of children following me appeared on various streets grinning, but I didn’t stop and ask for help. I was too nervous. The people of Turner Station just watched me, smiling and shaking their heads like, What’s that young white girl doing driving around in circles?

Finally I saw the New Shiloh Baptist Church, which the newspaper article had mentioned as the site of community meetings about the Henrietta Lacks museum. But it was closed. As I pressed my face to the tall glass out front, a black town car pulled up, and a smooth, hand-some man in his forties jumped out, with gold-tinted glasses, black suit, black beret, and the keys to the church. He slid his glasses to the end of his nose and looked me over, asking if I needed help.

I told him why I was there.

“Never heard of Henrietta Lacks,” he said.

“Not many people have,” I said, and told him I’d read that someone had hung a plaque in Henrietta’s honor at Speed’s Grocery.

“Oh! Speed’s?” he said, suddenly all smiles and a hand on my shoulder. “I can take you to Speed’s!” He told me to get in my car and follow him.

Everyone on the street waved and yelled as we passed: “Hi Reverend Jackson!” “How you doin, Reverend?” He nodded and yelled right back, “How you doin!” “God bless you!” Just two blocks away, we stopped in front of that gray trailer with the men out front and the Reverend jammed his car into park, waving for me to get out. The cluster of men on the steps smiled, grabbed the pastor’s hand, and gave it two-handed shakes, saying, “Hey Reverend, you brought a friend?”

“Yes I did,” he told them. “She’s here to talk to Ms. Speed.”

The one in the red pants and red suspenders—who turned out to be Speed’s oldest son, Keith—said she was out, and who knew when she’d be back, so I may as well grab a seat on the porch with the boys and wait. As I sat down, the man in the red and white ski jacket smiled a big bright smile, then told me he was her son Mike. Then there were her sons Cyrus and Joe and Tyrone. Every man on that porch was her son; so was nearly every man that walked in the store. Pretty soon, I’d counted fifteen sons and said, “Wait a minute. She’s got fifteen kids?”

“Oh!” Mike yelled. “You don’t know Mama Speed, do you?! Oooh, I look up to Mama—she tough! She keep Turners Station in line, boy! She fears no man!”

The men on the porch all nodded and said, “That’s right.”

“Don’t you get scared if anybody come in here try to attack Mama when we’re not around,” Mike said, “cause she’ll scare them to death!” Speed’s sons let out a chorus of amens as Mike told a story, saying, “This man came in the store once yellin, ‘I’m gonna come cross that counter and get you.’ I was hidin behind Mama I was so scared! And do you know what Mama did? She rocked her head and raised up them arms and said, ‘Come on! Come on-nnnnn! If you think you crazy, you just try it!’

Mike slapped me on the back and all the sons laughed.

At that moment, Courtney Speed appeared at the bottom of the steps, her long black hair piled loose on her head, strands hanging in wisps around her face, which was thin, beautiful, and entirely ageless. Her eyes were soft brown with a perfect halo of sea blue around the edges. She was delicate, not a hard edge on her. She hugged a grocery bag to her chest and whispered, “But did that man jump across that counter at me?”

Mike screamed and laughed so hard he couldn’t answer.

She looked at him, calm and smiling. “I said, Did that man jump?”

“No, he did not!” Mike said, grinning. “That man didn’t do nuthin but run! That’s why Mama got no gun in this store. She don’t need one!”

“I don’t live by the gun,” she said, then turned to me and smiled. “How you doin?” She walked up the stairs into the store, and we all followed.

“Mama,” Keith said, “Pastor brought this woman in here. She’s Miss Rebecca and she’s here to talk to you.”

Courtney Speed smiled a beautiful, almost bashful smile, her eyes bright and motherly. “God bless you, sweetie,” she said.

Inside, flattened cardboard boxes covered most of the floor, which was worn from years of foot traffic. Shelves lined each wall, some bare, others stacked with Wonder Bread, rice, toilet paper, and pigs’ feet. On one, Speed had piled hundreds of editions of the Baltimore Sun dating back to the 1970s, when her husband died. She said she’d given up replacing the windows each time someone broke in because they’d just do it again. She’d hung handwritten signs on every wall of the store: one for “Sam the Man Snowballs,” others for sports clubs, church groups, and free GED and adult literacy classes. She had dozens of “spiritual sons,” who she treated no different than her six bio logical sons. And when any child came in to buy chips, candy, or soda, Speed made them calculate how much change she owed them—they got a free Hershey’s kiss for each correct answer.

Speed started straightening the items on her shelves so each label faced out, then yelled over her shoulder at me, “How did you find your way here?”

I told her about the four maps, and she threw a box of lard onto the shelf. “Now we got the four-map syndrome,” she said. “They keep trying to push us off the earth, but God won’t let them. Praise the Lord, he brings us the people we really need to talk to.”

She wiped her hands on her white shirt. “Now that He brought you here, what can I do for you?”

“I’m hoping to learn about Henrietta Lacks,” I said.

Courtney gasped, her face suddenly ashen. She took several steps back and hissed, “You know Mr. Cofield? Did he send you?”

I was confused. I told her I’d never heard of Cofield, and no one had sent me. “How did you know about me?” she snapped, backing away further.

I pulled the old crumpled newspaper article from my purse and handed it to her. “Have you talked to the family?” she asked.

“I’m trying,” I said. “I talked to Deborah once, and I was supposed to meet Sonny today, but he didn’t show up.”

She nodded, like I knew it. “I can’t tell you anything until you got the support of the family. I can’t risk that.”

“What about the plaque you got for the museum?” I asked. “Can I see that?”

“It’s not here,” she snapped. “Nothing’s here, because bad things happened around all that.”

She looked at me for a long moment, then her face softened. She took my hand in one of hers, and touched my face with the other.

“I like your eyes,” she said. “Come with me.”

She hurried out the door and down the stairs to her old brown station wagon. A man sat in the passenger seat, staring straight at the road as if the car were moving. He didn’t look up as she jumped in, saying, “Follow me.”

We drove through Turner Station to the parking lot of the local public library. As I opened my car door, Courtney appeared, clapping, grinning, and bouncing on her tiptoes. Words erupted from her: “February first is Henrietta Lacks day here in Baltimore County,” she said. “This February first is going to be the big kickoff event here at the library! We’re still trying to put a museum together, even though the Cofield situation did cause so many problems. Terrified Deborah. We were supposed to be almost done with the museum by now—we were so close before all that horribleness. But I’m glad He sent you,” she said, pointing to the sky. “This story just got to be told! Praise the Lord, people got to know about Henrietta!”

“Who’s Cofield?” I asked.

She cringed and slapped her hand over her mouth. “I really can’t talk until the family says it’s okay,” she said, then grabbed my hand and ran into the library.

“This is Rebecca,” she told the librarian, bouncing on her toes again. “She’s writing about Henrietta Lacks!”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” the librarian said. Then she looked at Courtney. “Are you talking to her?”

“I need the tape,” Courtney said.

The librarian walked down a row of videos, pulled a white box from the shelf, and handed it to her.

Courtney tucked the video under her arm, grabbed my hand, and ran me back to the parking lot, where she jumped into her car and sped off, waving for me to follow. We stopped out-side a convenience store while the man in her front seat got out and bought a loaf of bread. Then we dropped him off in front of his house as Courtney yelled back to me, “He’s my deaf cousin! Can’t drive!”

Finally she led me to a small beauty parlor she owned, not far from Speed’s Grocery. She unlocked two bolts on the front door and waved her hand in the air, saying, “Smells like I got a mouse in one of those traps.” The shop was narrow, with barber chairs lining one wall and dryers along the other. The hair-washing sink, propped up with a piece of plywood, drained into a large white bucket, the walls around it splattered with years’ worth of hair dye. Next to the sink sat a price board: Cut and style ten dollars. Press and curl, seven. And against the back wall, on top of a supply cabinet, sat a photocopy of the picture of Henrietta Lacks, hands on hips, in a pale wood frame several inches too big.

I pointed to the photo and raised my eyebrows. Courtney shook her head.

“I’ll tell you everything I know,” she whispered, “just as soon as you talk to the family and they say it’s okay. I don’t want any more problems. And I don’t want Deborah to get sick over it again.”

She pointed to a cracked red vinyl barber’s chair, which she spun to face a small television next to the hair dryers. “You have to watch this tape,” she said, handing me the remote and a set of keys. She started to walk out the door, then turned. “Don’t you open this door for nothing or nobody but me, you hear?” she said. “And don’t you miss nothing in that video—use that rewind button, watch it twice if you have to, but don’t you miss nothing.” Then she left, locking the door behind her.

What rolled in front of me on that television screen was a one-hour BBC documentary about Henrietta and the HeLa cells, called The Way of All Flesh, which I’d been trying to get a copy of for months. It opened to sweet music and a young black woman who wasn’t Henrietta, dancing in front of the camera. A British man began narrating, his voice melodramatic, like he was telling a ghost story that just might be true.

“In 1951 a woman died in Baltimore in America,” he said, pausing for effect. “She was called Henrietta Lacks.” The music grew louder and more sinister as he told the story of her cells: “These cells have transformed modern medicine. … They shaped the policies of countries and of presidents. They even became involved in the Cold War. Because scientists were convinced that in her cells lay the secret of how to conquer death….”

What really grabbed me was footage of Clover, an old plantation town in southern Virginia, where some of Henrietta’s relatives still seemed to live. The last image to appear on the screen was Henrietta’s cousin Fred Garret, standing behind an old slave shack in Clover, his back to the family cemetery where the narrator said Henrietta lay buried in an unmarked grave.

Fred pointed to the cemetery and looked hard into the camera.

“Do you think them cells still livin?” he asked. “I talkin bout in the grave.” He paused, then laughed a long, rumbling laugh. “Hell naw,” he said, “I don’t guess they are. But they’re still livin out in the test tubes. That’s a miracle.”

The screen went blank and I realized, if Henrietta’s children and husband wouldn’t talk to me, I needed to visit Clover and find her cousins.

That night, back at the hotel, I finally got Sonny on the phone. He said he’d decided not to meet me but wouldn’t tell me why. When I asked him to put me in touch with his family in Clover, he told me to go there and find them myself. Then he laughed and wished me luck.

10 – The Other Side of the Tracks (1999)

Clover sits a few rolling hills off Route 360 in southern Virginia, just past Difficult Creek on the banks of the River of Death. I pulled into town under a blue December sky, with air warm enough for May, a yellow Post-it note with the only information Sonny had given me stuck on my dashboard: “They haven’t found her grave. Make sure it’s day—there are no lights, gets darker than dark. Ask anybody where Lacks Town is.”

Downtown Clover started at a boarded-up gas station with RIP spray-painted across its front, and ended at an empty lot that once held the depot where Henrietta caught her train to Baltimore. The roof of the old movie theater on Main Street had caved in years ago, its screen landing flat in a field of weeds. The other businesses looked like someone left for lunch decades earlier and never bothered coming back: one wall of Abbott’s clothing store was lined with boxes of new Red Wing work boots stacked to the ceiling and covered in thick dust; inside its long glass counter, beneath an antique cash register, lay rows and rows of men’s dress shirts, still folded starch-stiff in their plastic. The lounge at Rosie’s restaurant was filled with overstuffed chairs, couches, and shag carpet, all in dust-covered browns, oranges, and yellows. A sign in the front window said OPEN 7 DAYS, just above one that said CLOSED. At Gregory and Martin Super Market, half-full shop ping carts rested in the aisles next to decades-old canned foods, and the wall clock hadn’t moved past 6:34 since Martin closed up shop to become an undertaker sometime in the eighties.

Even with kids on drugs and the older generation dying off, Clover didn’t have enough death to keep an undertaker in business: in 1974 it had a population of 227; in 1998 it was 198. That same year, Clover lost its town charter. It did still have several churches and a few beauty parlors, but they were rarely open. The only steady business left downtown was the one-room brick post office, but it was closed when I got there.

Main Street felt like a place where you could sit for hours without seeing a pedestrian or a car. But a man stood in front of Rosie’s, leaning against his red motorized bicycle, waiting to wave at any cars that might pass. He was a short, round white man with red cheeks who could have been anywhere from fifty to seventy. Locals called him the Greeter, and he’d spent most of his life on that corner waving at anyone who drove by, his face expressionless. I asked if he could direct me to Lacks Town, where I planned to look for mailboxes with the name Lacks on them, then knock on doors asking about Henrietta. The man never said a word, just waved at me, then slowly pointed behind him, across the tracks.

The dividing line between Lacks Town and the rest of Clover was stark. On one side of the two-lane road from downtown, there were vast, well-manicured rolling hills, acres and acres of wide-open property with horses, a small pond, a well-kept house set back from the road, a minivan, and a white picket fence. Directly across the street stood a small one-room shack about seven feet wide and twelve feet long; it was made of unpainted wood, with large gaps between the wallboards where vines and weeds grew.

That shack was the beginning of Lacks Town, a single road about a mile long and lined with dozens of houses—some painted bright yellows or greens, others unpainted, half caved-in or nearly burnt-down. Slave-era cabins sat next to cinder-block homes and trailers, some with satellite dishes and porch swings, others rusted and half buried. I drove the length of Lacks Town Road again and again, past the END OF STATE MAINTENANCE sign where the road turned to gravel, past a tobacco field with a basketball court in it—just a patch of red dirt and a bare hoop attached to the top of a weathered tree trunk.

The muffler on my beat-up black Honda had fallen off somewhere between Pittsburgh and Clover, which meant everyone in Lacks Town heard each time I passed. They walked onto porches and peered through windows as I drove by. Finally, on my third or fourth pass, a man who looked like he was in his seventies shuffled out of a green two-room wooden cabin wear-ing a bright green sweater, a matching scarf, and a black driving cap. He waved a stiff arm at me, eyebrows raised.

“You lost?” he yelled over my muffler.

I rolled down my window and said not exactly.

“Well where you tryin to go?” he said. “Cause I know you’re not from around here.” I asked him if he’d heard of Henrietta.

He smiled and introduced himself as Cootie, Henrietta’s first cousin.

His real name was Hector Henry—people started calling him Cootie when he got polio decades earlier; he was never sure why. Cootie’s skin was light enough to pass for Latino, so when he got sick at nine years old, a local white doctor snuck him into the nearest hospital, saying Cootie was his son, since the hospitals didn’t treat black patients. Cootie spent a year inside an iron lung that breathed for him, and he’d been in and out of hospitals ever since.

The polio had left him partially paralyzed in his neck and arms, with nerve damage that caused constant pain. He wore a scarf regardless of the weather, because the warmth helped ease the pain.

I told him why I was there, and he pointed up and down the road. “Everybody in Lacks Town kin to Henrietta, but she been gone so long, even her memory pretty much dead now,” he said. “Everything about Henrietta dead except them cells.”

He pointed to my car. “Turn this loud thing off and come inside. I’ll fix you some juice.”

His front door opened into a tiny kitchen with a coffeemaker, a vintage toaster, and an old wood stove with two cooking pots on top, one empty, the other filled with chili. He’d painted the kitchen walls the same dark olive green as the outside, and lined them with power strips and fly swatters. He’d recently gotten indoor plumbing, but still preferred the outhouse.

Though Cootie could barely move his arms, he’d built the house on his own, teaching him-self construction as he went along, hammering the plywood walls and plastering the inside. But he’d forgotten to use insulation, so soon after he finished it, he tore down the walls and started over again. A few years after that, the whole place burned down when he fell asleep under an electric blanket, but he built it back up again. The walls were a bit crooked, he said, but he’d used so many nails, he didn’t think it would ever fall down.

Cootie handed me a glass of red juice and shooed me out of the kitchen into his dark, wood-paneled living room. There was no couch, just a few metal folding chairs and a barber’s chair anchored to the linoleum floor, its cushions covered entirely with duct tape. Cootie had been the Lacks Town barber for decades. “That chair cost twelve hundred dollars now, but I got it for eight dollars back then,” he yelled from the kitchen. “Haircut wasn’t but a dollar—sometimes I cut fifty-eight heads in one day.” Eventually he quit because he couldn’t hold his arms up long enough to cut.

A small boom box leaned against one wall blaring a gospel call-in show, with a preacher screaming something about the Lord curing a caller of hepatitis.

Cootie opened a folding chair for me, then walked into his bedroom. He lifted his mattress with one arm, propped it on his head, and began rummaging through piles of paper hidden beneath it.

“I know I got some information on Henrietta in here somewhere,” he mumbled from under the mattress. “Where the hell I put that… You know other countries be buying her for twenty-five dollars, sometimes fifty? Her family didn’t get no money out of it.”

After digging through what looked like hundreds of papers, he came back to the living room.

“This here the only picture I got of her,” he said, pointing to a copy of the Rolling Stone article with the ever-present hands-on-hips photo. “I don’t know what it say. Only education I got, I had to learn on my own. But I always couldn’t count, and I can’t hardly read or write my name cause my hand’s so jittery.” He asked if the article said anything about her childhood in Clover. I shook my head no.

“Everybody liked Henrietta cause she was a very good condition person,” he said. “She just lovey dovey, always smilin, always takin care of us when we come to the house. Even after she got sick, she never was a person who say ‘I feel bad and I’m going to take it out on you.’ She wasn’t like that, even when she hurtin. But she didn’t seem to understand what was going on. She didn’t want to think she was gonna die.”

He shook his head. “You know, they said if we could get all the pieces of her together, she’d weigh over eight hundred pounds now,” he told me. “And Henrietta never was a big girl. She just still growin.”

In the background, the radio preacher screamed “Hallelujah!” over and over as Cootie spoke.

“She used to take care of me when my polio got bad,” he told me. “She always did say she wanted to fix it. She couldn’t help me cause I had it before she got sick, but she saw how bad it got. I imagine that’s why she used them cells to help get rid of it for other folk.” He paused. “Nobody round here never understood how she dead and that thing still livin. That’s where the mystery’s at.”

He looked around the room, nodding his head toward spaces between the wall and ceiling where he’d stuffed dried garlic and onions.

“You know, a lot of things, they man-made,” he told me, dropping his voice to a whisper. “You know what I mean by man-made, don’t you?”

I shook my head no.

“Voodoo,” he whispered. “Some peoples is sayin Henrietta’s sickness and them cells was man-or woman-made, others say it was doctor-made.”

As he talked, the preacher’s voice on the radio grew louder, saying, “The Lord, He’s gonna help you, but you got to call me right now. If my daughter or sister had cancer! I would get on that phone, cause time’s running out!”

Cootie yelled over the radio. “Doctors say they never heard of another case like Henri-etta’s! I’m sure it was either man-made or spirit-made, one of the two.”

Then he told me about spirits in Lacks Town that sometimes visited people’s houses and caused disease. He said he’d seen a man spirit in his house, sometimes leaning against the wall by his wood stove, other times by the bed. But the most dangerous spirit, he told me, was the several-ton headless hog he saw roaming Lacks Town years ago with no tail. Links of broken chain dangled from its bloodstained neck, dragging along dirt roads and clanking as it walked.

“I saw that thing crossin the road to the family cemetery,” Cootie told me. “That spirit stood right there in the road, its chain swingin and swayin in the breeze.” Cootie said it looked at him and stomped its foot, kicking red dust all around its body, getting ready to charge. Just then, a car came barreling down the road with only one headlight.

“The car came along, shined a light right on it, I swear it was a hog,” Cootie said. Then the spirit vanished. “I can still hear that chain draggin.” Cootie figured that car saved him from get-ting some new disease.

“Now I don’t know for sure if a spirit got Henrietta or if a doctor did it,” Cootie said, “but I do know that her cancer wasn’t no regular cancer, cause regular cancer don’t keep on growing after a person die.”

11 – “The Devil of Pain Itself” (1951)

By September, Henrietta’s body was almost entirely taken over by tumors. They’d grown on her diaphragm, her bladder, and her lungs. They’d blocked her intestines and made her belly swell like she was six months pregnant. She got one blood transfusion after another because her kidneys could no longer filter the toxins from her blood, leaving her nauseated from the poison of her own body. She got so much blood that one doctor wrote a note in her record stopping all transfusions “until her deficit with the blood bank was made up.”

When Henrietta’s cousin Emmett Lacks heard somebody at Sparrows Point say Henrietta was sick and needed blood, he threw down the steel pipe he was cutting and ran looking for his brother and some friends. They were working men, with steel and asbestos in their lungs and years’ worth of hard labor under their calluses and cracked fingernails. They’d all slept on Henrietta’s floor and eaten her spaghetti when they first came to Baltimore from the country, and anytime money ran low. She’d ridden the streetcar to and from Sparrows Point to make sure they didn’t get lost during their first weeks in the city. She’d packed their lunches until they found their feet, then sent extra food to work with Day so they didn’t go hungry between paychecks. She’d teased them about needing wives and girlfriends, and sometimes helped them find good ones. Emmett had stayed at Henrietta’s so long, he had his own bed in the hallway at the top of the stairs. He’d only moved out a few months earlier.

The last time Emmett saw Henrietta, he’d taken her to visit Elsie in Crownsville. They found her sitting behind barbed wire in the corner of a yard outside the brick barracks where she slept. When she saw them coming she made her birdlike noise, then ran to them and just stood, staring. Henrietta wrapped her arms around Elsie, looked her long and hard in the eyes, then turned to Emmett.

“She look like she doin better,” Henrietta said. “Yeah, Elsie look nice and clean and everything.” They sat in silence for a long time. Henrietta seemed relieved, almost desperate, to see Elsie looking okay. That was the last time she would see her daughter—Emmett figures she knew she was saying goodbye. What she didn’t know was that no one would ever visit Elsie again.

A few months later, when Emmett heard Henrietta needed blood, he and his brother and six friends piled into a truck and went straight to Hopkins. A nurse led them through the colored ward, past rows of hospital beds to the one where Henrietta lay. She’d withered from 140 pounds to about 100. Sadie and Henrietta’s sister Gladys sat beside her, their eyes swollen from too much crying and not enough sleep. Gladys had come from Clover by Greyhound as soon as she got word Henrietta was in the hospital. The two had never been close, and people still teased Gladys, saying she was too mean and ugly to be Henrietta’s sister. But Henrietta was family, so Gladys sat beside her, clutching a pillow in her lap.

A nurse stood in the corner watching as the eight big men crowded around the bed. When Henrietta tried to move her arm to lift herself, Emmett saw the straps around her wrists and ankles, attaching her to the bed frame.

“What you doin here?” Henrietta moaned.

“We come to get you well,” Emmett said to a chorus of yeahs from the other men. Henrietta didn’t say a word. She just lay her head back on the pillow.

Suddenly her body went rigid as a board. She screamed as the nurse ran to the bed, tightening the straps around Henrietta’s arms and legs to keep her from thrashing onto the floor as she’d done many times before. Gladys thrust the pillow from her lap into Henrietta’s mouth, to keep her from biting her tongue as she convulsed in pain. Sadie cried and stroked Henrietta’s hair.

“Lord,” Emmett told me years later. “Henrietta rose up out that bed wailin like she been possessed by the devil of pain itself.”

The nurse shooed Emmett and his brothers out of the ward to the room designated for colored blood collection, where they’d donate eight pints of blood. As Emmett walked from Henrietta’s bedside, he turned to look just as the fit began to pass and Gladys slid the pillow from Henrietta’s mouth.

“That there’s a memory I’ll take to my grave,” he told me years later. “When them pains hit, looked like her mind just said, Henrietta, you best leave. She was sick like I never seen. Sweetest girl you ever wanna meet, and prettier than anything. But them cells, boy, them cells of hers is somethin else. No wonder they never could kill them … That cancer was a terrible thing.”

Soon after Emmett and his friends visited, at four o’clock on the afternoon of September 24, 1951, a doctor injected Henrietta with a heavy dose of morphine and wrote in her chart, “Discontinue all medications and treatments except analgesics.” Two days later, Henrietta awoke terrified, disoriented, wanting to know where she was and what the doctors had been doing to her. For a moment she forgot her own name. Soon after that, she turned to Gladys and told her she was going to die.

“You make sure Day takes care of them children,” Henrietta told her sister, tears stream-ing down her face. “Especially my baby girl Deborah.” Deborah was just over a year old when Henrietta went into the hospital. Henrietta had wanted to hold Deborah, to dress her in beautiful clothes and braid her hair, to teach her how to paint her nails, curl her hair, and handle men.

Henrietta looked at Gladys and whispered, “Don’t you let anything bad happen to them children when I’m gone.”

Then she rolled over, her back to Gladys, and closed her eyes.

Gladys slipped out of the hospital and onto a Greyhound back to Clover. That night, she called Day.

“Henrietta gonna die tonight,” she told him. “She wants you to take care of them kids—I told her I’d let you know. Don’t let nuthin happen to them.”

Henrietta died at 12:15 a.m. on October 4, 1951.

12 – The Storm (1951)

There was no obituary for Henrietta Lacks, but word of her death reached the Gey lab quickly. As Henrietta’s body cooled in the “colored” freezer, Gey asked her doctors if they’d do an autopsy. Tissue culturists around the world had been trying to create a library of immortal cells like Henrietta’s, and Gey wanted samples from as many organs in her body as possible, to see if they’d grow like HeLa. But to get those samples after her death, someone would have to ask Henrietta’s husband for permission.

Though no law or code of ethics required doctors to ask permission before taking tissue from a living patient, the law made it very clear that performing an autopsy or removing tissue from the dead without permission was illegal.

The way Day remembers it, someone from Hopkins called to tell him Henrietta had died, and to ask permission for an autopsy, and Day said no. A few hours later, when Day went to Hopkins with a cousin to see Henrietta’s body and sign some papers, the doctors asked again about the autopsy. They said they wanted to run tests that might help his children someday. Day’s cousin said it wouldn’t hurt, so eventually Day agreed and signed an autopsy permission form.

Soon Henrietta’s body lay on a stainless-steel table in the cavernous basement morgue, and Gey’s assistant, Mary, stood in the doorway breathing fast, feeling like she might faint. She’d never seen a dead body. Now there she was with a corpse, a stack of petridishes, and the pathologist, Dr. Wilbur, who stood hunched over the autopsy table. Henrietta’s arms were extended, as if she were reaching above her head. Mary walked toward the table, whispering to herself, You’re not going to make a fool of yourself and pass out.

She stepped around one of Henrietta’s arms and took her place beside Wilbur, her hip in Henrietta’s armpit. He said hello, Mary said hello back. Then they were silent. Day wanted Henrietta to be presentable for the funeral, so he’d only given permission for a partial autopsy, which meant no incision into her chest and no removal of her limbs or head. Mary opened the dishes one by one, holding them out to collect samples as Wilbur cut them from Henrietta’s body: bladder, bowel, uterus, kidney, vagina, ovary, appendix, liver, heart, lungs. After drop-ping each sample into a petridish, Wilbur put bits of Henrietta’s tumor-covered cervix into containers filled with formal dehyde to save them for future use.

The official cause of Henrietta’s death was terminal uremia: blood poisoning from the buildup of toxins normally flushed out of the body in urine. The tumors had completely blocked her urethra, leaving her doctors unable to pass a catheter into her bladder to empty it. Tumors the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls.

Mary stood beside Wilbur, waiting as he sewed Henrietta’s abdomen closed. She wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs—anything to avoid looking into her lifeless eyes. Then 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 years 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.”

A few days later, Henrietta’s body made the long, winding train ride from Baltimore to Clover in a plain pine box, which was all Day could afford. It was raining when the local undertaker met Henrietta’s coffin at the Clover depot and slid it into the back of a rusted truck. He rolled through downtown Clover, past the hardware store where Henrietta used to watch old white men play checkers, and onto Lacks Town Road, turning just before The Shack, where she’d danced only a few months earlier. As the undertaker drove into Lacks Town, cousins filed onto porches to watch Henrietta pass, their hands on hips or clutching children as they shook their heads and whispered to the Lord.

Cootie shuffled into his yard, looked straight into the falling rain, and yelled, “Sweet Jesus, let that poor woman rest, you hear me? She had enough!”

Amens echoed from a nearby porch.

A quarter-mile down the road, Gladys and Sadie sat on the broken wooden steps of the home-house, a long pink dress draped across their laps and a basket at their feet filled with makeup, curlers, red nail polish, and the two pennies they’d rest on Henrietta’s eyes to keep them closed for the viewing. They watched silently as the undertaker inched through the field between the road and the house, his tires sinking into puddles of red mud.

Cliff and Fred stood in the graveyard behind the house, their over alls drenched and heavy with rain. They’d spent most of the day thrusting shovels into the rocky cemetery ground, digging a grave for Henrietta. They dug in one spot, then another, moving each time their shovels hit the coffins of unknown relatives buried with no markers. Eventually they found an empty spot for Henrietta near her mother’s tombstone.

When Cliff and Fred heard the undertaker’s truck, they walked toward the home-house to help unload Henrietta. When they got her into the hallway, they opened the pine box, and Sadie began to cry. What got her most wasn’t the sight of Henrietta’s lifeless body, it was her toenails: Henrietta would rather have died than let her polish get all chipped like that.

“Lord,” Sadie said. “Hennie must a hurt somethin worse than death.”

For several days, Henrietta’s corpse lay in the hallway of the home-house, doors propped open at each end to let in the cool wet breeze that would keep her body fresh. Family and neighbors waded through the field to pay respects, and all the while, the rain kept coming. The morning of Henrietta’s funeral, Day walked through the mud with Deborah, Joe, Sonny, and Lawrence. But not Elsie. She was still in Crownsville and didn’t even know her

mother had died.

The Lacks cousins don’t remember much about the service—they figure there were some words, probably a song or two. But they all remember what happened next. As Cliff and Fred lowered Henrietta’s coffin into her grave and began covering her with handfuls of dirt, the sky turned black as strap molasses. The rain fell thick and fast. Then came long rumbling thunder, screams from the babies, and a blast of wind so strong it tore the metal roof off the barn be-low the cemetery and sent it flying through the air above Henrietta’s grave, its long metal slopes flapping like the wings of a giant silver bird. The wind caused fires that burned tobacco fields. It ripped trees from the ground, blew power lines out for miles, and tore one Lacks cousin’s wooden cabin clear out of the ground, threw him from the living room into his garden, then landed on top of him, killing him instantly.

Years later, when Henrietta’s cousin Peter looked back on that day, he just shook his bald head and laughed: “Hennie never was what you’d call a beatin-around-the-bush woman,” he said. “We shoulda knew she was tryin to tell us somethin with that storm.”

13 – The HeLa Factory (1951 – 1953)

Not long after Henrietta’s death, planning began for a HeLa factory—a massive operation that would grow to produce trillions of HeLa cells each week. It was built for one reason: to help stop polio.

By the end of 1951 the world was in the midst of the biggest polio epidemic in history. Schools closed, parents panicked, and the public grew desperate for a vaccine. In February 1952, Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh announced that he’d developed the world’s first polio vaccine, but he couldn’t begin offering it to children until he’d tested it on a large scale to prove it was safe and effective. And doing that would require culturing cells on an enormous, industrial scale, which no one had done before.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP)—a charity created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who’d himself been paralyzed by polio—began organizing the largest field trial ever conducted to test the polio vaccine. Salk would inoculate 2 million chil-dren and the NFIP would test their blood to see if they’d become immune. But doing this would require millions of neutralization tests, which involved mixing blood serum from newly vaccinated children with live poliovirus and cells in culture. If the vaccine worked, the serum from a vaccinated child’s blood would block the poliovirus and protect the cells. If it didn’t work, the virus would infect the cells, causing damage scientists could see using a micro-scope.

The trouble was, at that point, the cells used in neutralization tests came from monkeys, which were killed in the process. This was a problem, not because of concern for animal welfare—which wasn’t the issue then that it is today—but because monkeys were expensive. Doing millions of neutralization tests using monkey cells would cost millions of dollars. So the NFIP went into overdrive looking for a cultured cell that could grow on a massive scale and would be cheaper than using monkeys. The NFIP turned to Gey and a few other cell culture experts for help, and Gey recognized the opportunity as a gold mine for the field. The NFIP’s March of Dimes was bringing in an av-erage of $ 50 million in donations each year, and its director wanted to give much of that money to cell culturists so they could find a way to mass-produce cells, which they’d been wanting to do for years anyway.

The timing was perfect: by chance, soon after the NFIP contacted Gey for help, he realized that Henrietta’s cells grew unlike any human cells he’d seen.

Most cells in culture grew in a single layer in a clot on a glass surface, which meant they ran out of space quickly. Increasing their numbers was labor-intensive: scientists had to repeatedly scrape the cells from one tube and split them into new ones to give them more space. HeLa cells, it turned out, weren’t picky—they didn’t need a glass surface in order to grow. They could grow floating in a culture medium that was constantly stirred by a magnetic device, an important technique Gey developed, now called growing in suspension. This meant that HeLa cells weren’t limited by space in the same way other cells were; they could simply divide until they ran out of culture medium. The bigger the vat of medium, the more the cells grew. This discovery meant that if HeLa was susceptible to poliovirus, which not all cells were, it would solve the mass-production problem and make it possible to test the vaccine without millions of monkey cells.

So in April 1952, Gey and one of his colleagues from the NFIP advisory commit-tee—William Scherer, a young postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota—tried infecting Henrietta’s cells with poliovirus. Within days they found that HeLa was, in fact, more susceptible to the virus than any cultured cells had ever been. When they realized this, they knew they’d found exactly what the NFIP was looking for.

They also knew that, before mass-producing any cells, they’d need to find a new way to ship them. Gey’s air freight shipping system worked fine for sending a few cells to colleagues here and there, but it was too expensive for shipping on a massive scale. And growing cells by the billions wouldn’t help anyone if they couldn’t get those cells where they needed to go. So they began experimenting.

On Memorial Day 1952, Gey gathered a handful of tubes containing HeLa cells and enough media for them to survive for a few days, and packed them into a tin lined with cork and filled with ice to prevent overheating. Then he typed up careful instructions for feeding and handling, and sent Mary to the post office to ship them to Scherer in Minnesota. Every post office in Baltimore was closed for the holiday except the main branch downtown. Mary had to take several trolleys to get there, but she made it. And so did the cells: When the pack-age arrived in Minneapolis about four days later, Scherer put the cells in an incubator and they began to grow. It was the first time live cells had ever been successfully shipped in themail.

In the coming months—to test different delivery methods, and make sure the cells could survive long trips in any climate—Gey and Scherer sent tubes of HeLa cells around the country by plane, train, and truck, from Minneapolis to Norwich to New York and back again. Only one tube died.

When the NFIP heard the news that HeLa was susceptible to polio virus and could grow in large quantities for little money, it immediately contracted William Scherer to oversee development of a HeLa Distribution Center at the Tuskegee Institute, one of the most prestigious black universities in the country. The NFIP chose the Tuskegee Institute for the project be-cause of Charles Bynum, director of “Negro Activities” for the foundation. Bynum—a science teacher and civil rights activist who was the first black foundation executive in the country—wanted the center to be located at Tuskegee because it would provide hundreds of thou-sands of dollars in funding, many jobs, and training opportunities for young black scientists.

In just a few months, a staff of six black scientists and technicians built a factory at Tuskegee unlike any seen before. Its walls were lined with industrial steel autoclaves for steam sterilizing; row upon row of enormous, mechanically stirred vats of culture medium; incubators; glass culturing bottles stacked on their sides; and automatic cell dispensers—tall contraptions with long, thin metal arms that squirted HeLa cells into one test tube after another. The Tuskegee team mixed thousands of liters of Gey culture medium each week, using salts, minerals, and serum they collected from the many students, soldiers, and cotton farmers who responded to ads in the local paper seeking blood in exchange for money.

Several technicians served as a quality-control assembly line, staring through micro-scopes at hundreds of thousands of HeLa cultures each week, making sure the samples were alive and healthy. Others shipped them on a rigid schedule to researchers at twenty-three polio-testing centers around the country.

Eventually, the Tuskegee staff grew to thirty-five scientists and technicians, who produced twenty thousand tubes of HeLa—about 6 trillion cells—every week. It was the first-ever cell production factory, and it started with a single vial of HeLa that Gey had sent Scherer in their first shipping experiment, not long after Henrietta’s death.

With those cells, scientists helped prove the Salk vaccine effective. Soon the New York Times would run pictures of black women hunched over microscopes examining cells, black hands holding vials of HeLa, and this headline:
Corps of Negro Scientists Has Key Role in Evaluating of Dr. Salk’s Vaccine

Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.

At first the Tuskegee Center supplied HeLa cells only to polio testing labs. But when it be-came clear that there was no risk of a HeLa shortage, they began sending the cells to any scientist interested in buying them, for ten dollars plus Air Express fees. If researchers wanted to figure out how cells behaved in a certain environment, or reacted to a specific chemical, or produced a certain protein, they turned to Henrietta’s cells. They did that because, despite be-ing cancerous, HeLa still shared many basic characteristics with normal cells: They produced proteins and communicated with one another like normal cells, they divided and generated energy, they expressed genes and regulated them, and they were susceptible to infections, which made them an optimal tool for synthesizing and studying any number of things in cul-ture, including bacteria, hormones, proteins, and especially viruses.

Viruses reproduce by injecting bits of their genetic material into a living cell, essentially re-programming the cell so it reproduces the virus instead of itself. When it came to growing viruses—as with many other things—the fact that HeLa was malignant just made it more useful. HeLa cells grew much faster than normal cells, and therefore produced results faster. HeLa was a workhorse: it was hardy, it was inexpensive, and it was everywhere.

And the timing was perfect. In the early fifties, scientists were just beginning to understand viruses, so as Henrietta’s cells arrived in labs around the country, researchers began exposing them to viruses of all kinds—herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox, equine encephalitis—to study how each one entered cells, reproduced, and spread.

Henrietta’s cells helped launch the fledgling field of virology, but that was just the beginning. In the years following Henrietta’s death, using some of the first tubes of her cells, re-searchers around the world made several important scientific advances in quick succession. First, a group of researchers used HeLa to develop methods for freezing cells without harm-ing or changing them. This made it possible to send cells around the world using the already-standardized method for shipping frozen foods and frozen sperm for breeding cattle. It also meant researchers could store cells between experiments without worrying about keeping them fed and sterile. But what excited scientists most was that freezing gave them a means to suspend cells in various states of being.

Freezing a cell was like pressing a pause button: cell division, metabolism, and everything else simply stopped, then resumed after thawing as if you’d just pressed play again. Scient-ists could now pause cells at various intervals during an experiment so they could compare how certain cells reacted to a specific drug one week, then two, then six after exposure. They could look at identical cells at different points in time, to study how they changed with age. And by freezing cells at various points, they believed they could see the actual moment when a normal cell growing in culture became malignant, a phenomenon they called spontaneous transformation.

Freezing was just the first of several dramatic improvements HeLa helped bring to the field of tissue culture. One of the biggest was the standardization of the field, which, at that point, was a bit of a mess. Gey and his colleagues had been complaining that they wasted too much time just making medium and trying to keep cells alive. But more than anything, they worried that since everyone was using different media ingredients, recipes, cells, and techniques, and few knew their peers’ methods, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate one another’s experiments. And replication is an essential part of science: a discovery isn’t considered valid if others can’t repeat the work and get the same result. Without standardized materials and methods, they worried that the field of tissue culture would stagnate.

Gey and several colleagues had already organized a committee to develop procedures to “simplify and standardize the technique of tissue culturing.” They’d also convinced two fledgling biological supply companies—Microbiological Associates and Difco Laboratories—to begin producing and selling ingredients for culture media, and taught them the techniques necessary to do so. Those companies had just started selling media ingredients, but cell culturists still had to make the media themselves, and they all used different recipes.

Standardization of the field wasn’t possible until several things happened: first, Tuskegee began mass-producing HeLa; second, a researcher named Harry Eagle at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) used HeLa to develop the first standardized culture medium that could be made by the gallon and shipped ready to use; and, third, Gey and several others used HeLa to determine which glassware and test-tube stoppers were least toxic to cells.

Only then, for the first time, could researchers around the world work with the same cells, growing in the same media, using the same equipment, all of which they could buy and have delivered to their labs. And soon they’d even be able to use the first-ever clones of human cells, something they’d been working toward for years.

Today, when we hear the word clone, we imagine scientists creating entire living animals—like Dolly the famous cloned sheep—using DNA from one parent. But before the cloning of whole animals, there was the cloning of individual cells—Henrietta’s cells.

To understand why cellular cloning was important, you need to know two things: First, HeLa didn’t grow from one of Henrietta’s cells. It grew from a sliver of her tumor, which was a cluster of cells. Second, cells often behave differently, even if they’re all from the same sample, which means some grow faster than others, some produce more poliovirus, and some are resistant to certain antibiotics. Scientists wanted to grow cellular clones—lines of cells descended from individual cells—so they could harness those unique traits. With HeLa, a group of scientists in Colorado succeeded, and soon the world of science had not only HeLa but also its hundreds, then thousands, of clones.

The early cell culture and cloning technology developed using HeLa helped lead to many later advances that required the ability to grow single cells in culture, including isolating stem cells, cloning whole animals, and in vitro fertilization. Meanwhile, as the standard human cell in most labs, HeLa was also being used in research that would advance the new field of human genetics.

Researchers had long believed that human cells contained forty-eight chromosomes, the threads of DNA inside cells that contain all of our genetic information. But chromosomes clumped together, making it impossible to get an accurate count. Then, in 1953, a geneticist in Texas accidentally mixed the wrong liquid with HeLa and a few other cells, and it turned out to be a fortunate mistake. The chromosomes inside the cells swelled and spread out, and for the first time, scientists could see each of them clearly. That accidental discovery was the first of several developments that would allow two researchers from Spain and Sweden to discover that normal human cells have forty-six chromosomes.

Once scientists knew how many chromosomes people were supposed to have, they could tell when a person had too many or too few, which made it possible to diagnose genetic diseases. Researchers worldwide would soon begin identifying chromosomal disorders, discovering that patients with Down syndrome had an extra chromosome number 21, patients with Klinefelter syndrome had an extra sex chromosome, and those with Turner syndrome lacked all or part of one.

With all the new developments, demand for HeLa grew, and Tuskegee wasn’t big enough to keep up. The owner of Microbiological Associates—a military man named Samuel Read-er—knew nothing about science, but his business partner, Monroe Vincent, was a researcher who understood the potential market for cells. Many scientists needed cells, but few had the time or ability to grow them in large enough quantities. They just wanted to buy them. So together, Reader and Vincent used HeLa cells as the springboard to launch the first industrial-scale, for-profit cell distribution center.

It started with what Reader lovingly referred to as his Cell Factory. In Bethesda, Maryland, in the middle of a wide-open warehouse that was once a Fritos factory, he built a glass-enclosed room that housed a rotating conveyor belt with hundreds of test-tube holders built into it. Outside the glass room, he had a setup much like Tuskegee’s, with massive vats of culture medium, only bigger. When cells were ready for shipping, he’d sound a loud bell and all workers in the building, including the mailroom clerks, would stop what they were doing, scrub themselves at the sterilization station, grab a cap and gown, and line up at the conveyor belt. Some filled tubes, others inserted rubber stoppers, sealed tubes, or stacked them inside a walk-in incubator where they stayed until being packaged for shipping.

Microbiological Associates’ biggest customers were labs like NIH, which had standing orders for millions of HeLa cells delivered on set schedules. But scientists all over the world could call in orders, pay less than fifty dollars, and Microbiological Associates would overnight them vials of HeLa cells. Reader had contracts with several major airlines, so whenever he got an order, he’d send a courier with cells to catch the next flight out, then have the cells picked up from the airport and delivered to labs by taxi. Slowly, a multibillion-dollar industry selling human biological materials was born.

Reader recruited the top minds in the field to tell him what products they needed most and show him how to make them. One of the scientists who consulted for Reader was Leonard Hayflick, arguably the most famous early cell culturist left in the field today. When I talked with him he said, “Microbiological Associates and Sam Reader were an absolute revolution in the field, and I’m not one to use the word revolution lightly.”

As Reader’s business grew, demand for cells from Tuskegee plummeted. The NFIP closed its HeLa production center because places like Microbiological Associates now sup-plied scientists with all the cells they needed. And soon, HeLa cells weren’t the only ones be-ing bought and sold for research—with media and equipment standardization, culturing be-came easier, and researchers began growing cells of all kinds. But none grew in quantities like HeLa.As the Cold War escalated, some scientists exposed Henrietta’s cells to massive doses of radiation to study how nuclear bombs destroyed cells and find ways to reverse that damage. Others put them in special centrifuges that spun so fast the pressure inside was more than 100,000 times that of gravity, to see what happened to human cells under the extreme conditions of deep-sea diving or spaceflight.

The possibilities seemed endless. At one point, a health-education director at the Young Women’s Christian Association heard about tissue culture and wrote a letter to a group of re-searchers saying she hoped they’d be able to use it to help the YWCA’s older women. “They complain that the skin and tissues of the face and neck inevitably show the wear and tear of years,” she wrote. “My thought was that if you know how to keep tissue alive there must be some way of equalizing the reserve supply to the area of the throat and face.”

Henrietta’s cells couldn’t help bring youth to women’s necks, but cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies throughout the United States and Europe began using them instead of laboratory animals to test whether new products and drugs caused cellular damage. Scientists cut HeLa cells in half to show that cells could live on after their nuclei had been removed, and used them to develop methods for injecting sub stances into cells without destroying them. They used HeLa to test the effects of steroids, chemotherapy drugs, hormones, vitamins, and environmental stress; they infected them with tuberculosis, salmonella, and the bacterium that causes vaginitis.

At the request of the U.S. government, Gey took Henrietta’s cells with him to the Far East in 1953 to study hemorrhagic fever, which was killing American troops. He also injected them into rats to see if they’d cause cancer. But mostly he tried to move on from HeLa, focusing in-stead on growing normal and cancerous cells from the same patient, so he could compare them to each other. But he couldn’t escape the seemingly endless questions about HeLa and cell culture from other scientists. Researchers came to his lab several times each week want-ing to learn his techniques, and he often traveled to labs around the world to help set up cell-culture facilities.

Many of Gey’s colleagues pressured him to publish research papers so he could get credit for his work, but he always said he was too busy. At home he regularly stayed up all night to work. He applied for extensions on grants, often took months to answer letters, and at one point continued to pay a dead employee’s salary for three months before anyone noticed. It took a year of nagging from Mary and Margaret for George to publish anything about growing HeLa; in the end, he wrote a short abstract for a conference, and Margaret submitted it for publication. After that, she regularly wrote and submitted his work for him.

By the mid-fifties, as more scientists began working with tissue culture, Gey became weary. He wrote to friends and colleagues saying, “Someone should coin a contemporary phrase and say, at least for the moment, ‘The world has gone nuts over tissue culture and its possibilities.’ I hope that some of this hullabaloo over tissue culture has at least had a few good points which have helped others … I wish for the most part, however, that things would settle down a bit.”

Gey was annoyed by the widespread fixation on HeLa. After all, there were other cells to work with, including some he’d grown himself: A.Fi. and D-i Re, each named after the patient it came from. He regularly offered them to scientists, but they were harder to culture, so they never took off like Henrietta’s cells. Gey was relieved that companies had taken over HeLa distribution so that he didn’t have to do it himself, but he didn’t like the fact that HeLa was now completely out of his control.

Since the launch of the HeLa production factory at Tuskegee, Gey had been writing a steady stream of letters to other scientists, trying to restrict the way they used Henrietta’s cells. At one point he wrote his longtime friend and colleague Charles Pomerat, lamenting the fact that others, including some in Pomerat’s lab, were using HeLa for research Gey was “most capable” of doing himself, and in some cases had already done, but not yet published. Pomerat replied:

With regard to your … disapproval for a wide exploration of the HeLa strain, I don’t see how you can hope to inhibit progress in this direction since you released the strain so widely that it now can be purchased commercially This is a little bit like requesting people not to work on the golden hamster! … I realize that it is the goodness of your heart that made available the HeLa cell and therefore why you now find that everybody wants to get into the act.

Pomerat suggested that Gey should have finished his own HeLa research before “releasing [HeLa] to the general public since once released it becomes general scientific property.”

But Gey hadn’t done that. And as soon as HeLa became “general scientific property,” people started wondering about the woman behind the cells.

14 – Helen Lane (1953-1954)

So many people knew Henrietta’s name, someone was bound to leak it. Gey had told William Scherer and his adviser Jerome Syverton in Minneapolis, plus the people at the NFIP, who’d prob ably told the team at Tuskegee. Everyone in the Gey lab knew her name, as did Howard Jones, Richard TeLinde, and the other Hopkins doctors who’d treated her.

Sure enough, on November 2, 1953, the Minneapolis Star became the first publication to name the woman behind the HeLa cells. There was just one thing—the reporter got her name wrong. HeLa, the story said, was “from a Baltimore woman named Henrietta Lakes.”

No one knows who leaked the near-correct version of Henrietta’s name to the Minneapolis Star. Soon after the article ran, Gey got a letter from Jerome Syverton, saying, “I am writing to assure you that neither Bill nor I provided the [Minneapolis Star] with the name of the patient. As you know, Bill and I concur in your conviction that the cell strain should be referred to as HeLa and that the patient’s name should not be used.”

Regardless, a name was out. And two days after it was published, Roland H. Berg, a press officer at the NFIP, sent Gey a letter saying he planned to write a more detailed article about HeLa cells for a popular magazine. Berg was “intrigued with the scientific and human interest elements in such a story,” he wrote, and he wanted to learn more about it.

Gey replied saying, “I have discussed the matter with Dr. TeLinde, and he has agreed to allow this material to be presented in a popular magazine article. We must, however, withhold the name of the patient.”

But Berg insisted:

Perhaps I should describe further to you my ideas on this article, especially in view of your statement that the name of the patient must be withheld. … To inform [the public] you must also interest them. … You do not engage the attention of the reader unless your story has basic human interest elements. And the story of the HeLa cells, from what little I know of it now, has all those elements. …

An intrinsic part of this story would be to describe how these cells, originally obtained from Henrietta Lakes, are being grown and used for the benefit of mankind. … In a story such as this, the name of the individual is intrinsic. As a matter of fact, if I were to proceed with the task my plan would be to interview the relatives of Mrs. Lakes. Nor would I publish the story without the full cooperation and approval of Mrs. Lakes’ family. Incidentally, you may not be aware, but the identity of the patient is already a matter of public record inasmuch as newspaper reports have completely identified the individual. For example, I can refer you to the story in the Minneapolis Star, dated November 2, 1953.

I am entirely sympathetic to your reasons for withholding the name of the patient and thus prevent a possible invasion of privacy. However, I do believe that in the kind of article I am projecting there would be complete protection of the rights of all individuals.

Berg didn’t explain how releasing Henrietta’s name to the public would have protected the privacy or rights of her family. In fact, doing so would have forever connected Henrietta and her family with the cells and any medical information eventually derived from their DNA. That wouldn’t have protected the Lackses’ privacy, but it certainly would have changed the course of their lives. They would have learned that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, that they’d been taken, bought, sold, and used in research without her knowledge or theirs.

Gey forwarded the letter to TeLinde and others at Hopkins, including the head of public relations, asking how they thought he should respond.

“I see no reason why an interesting story cannot be made of it without using her name,” TeLinde replied. “Since there is no reason for doing it I can see no point in running the risk of getting into trouble by disclosing it.”

TeLinde didn’t say what “trouble” he worried they might get into by releasing Henrietta’s name. Keeping patient information confidential was emerging as a standard practice, but it wasn’t law, so releasing it wasn’t out of the question. In fact, he wrote Gey, “If you seriously disagree with me in this, I will be glad to talk to you.”

Gey wrote to Berg saying, “An interesting story could still be built around a fictitious name.” But he wasn’t entirely opposed to releasing her real name. “There may still be a chance for you to win your point,” he wrote. “I fully realize the importance of basic human interest elements in a story such as this and would propose therefore that you drop down to see Dr. TeLinde and myself.”

Gey never told Berg that the Minneapolis Star article had Henrietta’s name wrong, and Berg never wrote his article. But the press wasn’t going away. A few months later, a reporter from Collier’s magazine by the name of Bill Davidson contacted Gey—he was planning to write a story identical to the one Berg had proposed. This time Gey took a harder stance, per-haps because Davidson wasn’t affiliated with one of Gey’s major funding organizations, as Berg was. Gey agreed to be interviewed under two conditions: that he be allowed to read and approve the final article, and that the magazine not include the personal story or full name of the patient the cells came from.

The editor of the story balked. Like Berg, she wrote that “the human story behind these cells would be of great interest to the public.” But Gey wouldn’t budge. If she wanted him or any of his colleagues to talk with Davidson, Collier’s would have to publish the article withoutthe patient’s name.

The editor eventually agreed, and on May 14, 1954, Collier’s published a story about the power and promise of tissue culture. Watching HeLa cells divide on a screen, Davidson wrote, “was like a glimpse at immortality.” Because of cell culture, he said, the world was “on the threshold of a hopeful new era in which cancer, mental illness and, in fact, nearly all dis-eases now regarded as incurable will cease to torment man.” And much of that was thanks to cells from one woman, “an unsung heroine of medicine.” The story said her name was Helen L., “a young woman in her thirties when she was admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital with an incurable cancer of the cervix.” It also said Gey had grown Helen L.’s cells from a sample taken after her death, not before.

There’s no record of where those two pieces of misinformation came from, but it’s safe to assume they came from within the walls of Hopkins. As agreed, the Collier’s editor had sent the story to Gey before publication for review. One week later she got a corrected version back from Joseph Kelly, the head of public relations at Hopkins. Kelly had rewritten the article, presumably with Gey’s help, correcting several scientific errors but leaving two inaccuracies: the timing of growing the cells and the name Helen L.

Decades later, when a reporter for Rolling Stone asked Margaret Gey where the name Helen Lane came from, she’d say, “Oh, I don’t know. It was confused by a publisher in Minneapolis. The name wasn’t supposed to be revealed at all. It was just that somebody got con-fused.”

One of Gey’s colleagues told me that Gey created the pseudonym to throw journalists off the trail of Henrietta’s real identity. If so, it worked. From the moment the Collier’s article appeared until the seventies, the woman behind the HeLa cells would be known most often as Helen Lane, and sometimes as Helen Larson, but never as Henrietta Lacks. And because of that, her family had no idea her cells were alive.

15 – “Too Young to Remember” (1951-1965)

After Henrietta’s funeral, cousins came from Clover and all over Turner Station to help cook for her family and care for the babies. They came and went by the dozens, bringing children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. And one of them—no one was ever sure who—brought tuberculosis. Within weeks of Henrietta’s death, Sonny, Deborah, and baby Joe—all between one and four years old—tested positive for TB.

The doctor sent Deborah home with TB pills as big as bullets, but her little brother Joe was another story. He was barely a year old, and the tuberculosis nearly killed him. Joe spent much of his second year in the hospital, coughing up blood in an isolation chamber. After that, he spent months being passed from cousin to cousin.

Because Day was working two jobs, Lawrence dropped out of school and spent most of his time taking care of his brothers and Deborah, but he wanted to get out of the house now and then to go to the pool halls. At sixteen he was too young to get in, so he lied about his age and got himself a voter’s registration card saying he was eighteen. No one could prove he was lying since he’d been born on the home-house floor and didn’t have a birth certificate or social security card. But his plan backfired. Because of the Korean War, Congress had just lowered the minimum age for military service to eighteen and a half, so Lawrence was drafted at sixteen. He was sent to Virginia, where he’d serve two years in a medic unit at Fort Belvoir. With Lawrence gone, someone else had to raise the Lacks children.

No one told Sonny, Deborah, or Joe what had happened to their mother, and they were afraid to ask. Back then, the rule in the house was, Do what adults say—otherwise you’ll get hurt. They were to sit, hands folded, and not say a word unless someone asked them a question. As far as the children knew, their mother was there one day, gone the next. She never came back, and they got Ethel in her place.

Ethel was the woman that Sadie and Henrietta once hid from on the dance floor, the one Sadie and Margaret swore was jealous of Henrietta. They called her “that hateful woman,” and when she and her husband, Galen, moved into the house, saying they were there to help with the children, Sadie and Margaret figured Ethel was trying to move in on Day. Soon, stories began spreading about Ethel sleeping with Day instead of Galen. A good handful of cousins still think Ethel moved into that house and started up with Day just to get out all the hate she had for Henrietta by torturing her children.

Henrietta’s children grew up hungry. Every morning Ethel fed them each a cold biscuit that had to last them until dinner. She put latches and bolts on the refrigerator and cupboard doors to keep the children out between meals. They weren’t allowed ice in their water because it made noise. If they were good, she’d sometimes give them a slice of bologna or a cold wiener, maybe pour the grease from her bacon pan onto their biscuit, or mix some water with vinegar and sugar for dessert. But she rarely thought they were good.

Lawrence came home from the military in 1953 and moved into a house of his own—he had no idea what Ethel was doing to his brothers and Deborah. As the children grew, Ethel woke them at dawn to clean the house, cook, shop, and do the laundry. In the summers she took them to Clover, where she’d send them into the fields to pick worms off tobacco leaves by hand. The tobacco juice stained their fingers and made them sick when it got in their mouths. But they grew used to it. The Lacks children had to work from sunup to sundown; they weren’t allowed to take breaks, and they got no food or water until nightfall, even when the summer heat burned. Ethel would watch them from the couch or a window, and if one of them stopped working before she told them to, she’d beat them all bloody. At one point, she beat Sonny so badly with an extension cord, he ended up in the hospital. But Joe got the worst of Ethel’s rage.

Sometimes she would beat Joe for no reason while he lay in bed or sat at the dinner table. She’d hit him with her fists, or whatever she had close: shoes, chairs, sticks. She made him stand in a dark basement corner on one foot, nose pressed to the wall, dirt filling his eyes. Sometimes she tied him up with rope and left him down there for hours. Other times she left him there all night. If his foot wasn’t in the air when she checked on him, she’d whip his back with a belt. If he cried, she’d just whip harder. And there was nothing Sonny or Deborah could do to help him; if they said anything, Ethel just beat them all worse. But after a while it got to where the beatings didn’t bother Joe. He stopped feeling pain; he felt only rage.

The police came by the house more than once to tell Day or Ethel to pull Joe off the roof, where he was lying on his stomach, shooting strangers on the sidewalk with his BB gun. When the police asked what he thought he was doing up there, Joe told them he was practi-cing to be a sniper when he grew up. They thought he was joking.

Joe grew into the meanest, angriest child any Lacks had ever known, and the family star-ted saying something must have happened to his brain while he was growing inside Henrietta alongside that cancer.

In 1959, Lawrence moved into a new house with his girlfriend, Bobbette Cooper. Five years earlier she noticed Lawrence walking down the street in his uniform, and fell for him instantly. Her grandmother warned her, “Don’t mess with that boy, his eyes green, his army suit green, and his car green. You can’t trust him.” But Bobbette didn’t listen. They moved in together when Bobbette was twenty and Lawrence was twenty-four, and they had their first child that same year. They also found out that Ethel had been beating Deborah and her brothers. Bobbette insisted that the whole family move in with her and Lawrence, and she helped raise Sonny, Deborah, and Joe as if they were her own.

Deborah was ten years old. Though moving out of Ethel’s house had ended the abuse for her brothers, it hadn’t stopped it for her. Ethel’s husband, Galen, was Deborah’s biggest problem, and he found her wherever she went.

She tried to tell Day when Galen touched her in ways she didn’t think he was supposed to, but Day never believed her. And Ethel just called Deborah words she’d never heard, like bitch and slut. In the car with Day driving and Ethel in the passenger seat, and everybody drinking except her, Deborah would sit in the back, pressed against the car door to get as far from Galen as she could. But he’d just slide closer. As Day drove with his arm around Ethel in front, Galen would grab Deborah in the backseat, forcing his hands under her shirt, in her pants, between her legs. After the first time he touched her, Deborah swore she’d never wear another pair of jeans with snaps instead of zippers again. But zippers didn’t stop him; neither did tight belts. So Deborah would just stare out the window, praying for Day to drive faster as she pushed Galen’s hands away again and again.

Then one day he called Deborah, saying, “Dale, come over here and get some money. Ethel wants you to pick her up some soda.”

When Deborah got to Galen’s house, she found him lying naked on the bed. She’d never seen a man’s penis and didn’t know what it meant for one to be erect, or why he was rubbing it. She just knew it all felt wrong.

“Ethel want a six-pack of soda,” Galen told Deborah, then patted the mattress beside him. “The money’s right here.”

Deborah kept her eyes on the floor and ran as fast as she could, snatching the money off the bed, ducking when he grabbed for her, then running down the stairs with him chasing after her, naked and yelling, “Get back here till I finish with you, Dale! You little whore! Just wait till I tell your father!” Deborah got away, which just made him madder.

Despite the beating and the molesting, Deborah felt closer to Galen than she ever had to Day. When he wasn’t hitting her, Galen showered her with attention and gifts. He bought her pretty clothes, and took her for ice cream. In those moments, Deborah pretended he was her father, and she felt like a regular little girl. But after he chased her through the house naked, it didn’t seem worth it, and eventually she told Galen she didn’t want any more gifts.

“I’ll get you a pair of shoes,” he said, then paused, rubbing her arm. “You don’t have to worry about anything. I’ll wear a rubber, you don’t have to worry about pregnant.” Deborah had never heard of a rubber, and she didn’t know what pregnant was, she just knew she wanted him to leave her alone.

Deborah had started scrubbing people’s floors and ironing for small amounts of money. She’d try to walk home alone after work, but Galen would usually pick her up along the way and try to touch her in the car. One day not long after her twelfth birthday, he pulled up beside Deborah and told her to get in. This time she kept walking.

Galen jammed the car into park and yelled, “You get in this damn car girl!”

Deborah refused. “Why should I get in?” she said. “I ain’t doing nothing wrong, it’s still daylight and I just walkin down the street.”

“Your father looking for you,” he snapped.

“Let him come get me then! You been doin things to my body you ain’t supposed to do,” she yelled. “I don’t want to be nowhere with you by myself no more. Lord gave me enough sense to know that.”

She turned to run but he hit her, grabbed her by the arm, threw her into the car, and kept right on having his way with her. A few weeks later, as Deborah walked home from work with a neighborhood boy named Alfred “Cheetah” Carter, Galen pulled up alongside them, yelling at her to get in the car. When Deborah refused, Galen raced up the street, tires screaming. A few minutes later he pulled up beside her again, this time with Day in the passenger seat. Galen jumped out of the car, cussing and screaming and telling her she was a whore. He grabbed Deborah by the arm, threw her in the car, and punched her hard in the face. Her father didn’t say a word, just stared through the windshield.

Deborah cried the whole way home to Bobbette and Lawrence’s house, blood dripping from her split eyebrow, then leapt from the car and ran through the house, straight into the closet where she hid when she was upset. She held the door closed tight. Bobbette saw Deborah run through the house crying, saw the blood on her face, and chased her to the closet. With Deborah inside sobbing, Bobbette pounded on the door saying, “Dale, what the hell is going on?”

Bobbette had been part of the family long enough to know that cousins sometimes had their way with other cousins. But she didn’t know about Galen hurting Deborah, because Deborah never told anyone—she was afraid she’d get in trouble.

Bobbette pulled Deborah from the closet, grabbed her shoulders, and said, “Dale, if you don’t tell me nothing, I won’t know nothing. Now, I know you love Galen like he your father, but you got to tell me what’s goin on.”

Deborah told Bobbette that Galen had hit her, and that he sometimes talked dirty to her in the car. She said nothing about Galen touching her, because she was sure Bobbette would kill him and she worried that with Galen dead and Bobbette in jail for murdering him, she’d have lost the two people who cared for her most in the world.

Bobbette stormed over to Galen and Ethel’s house, and burst in their front door screaming that if either of them touched one of those Lacks children again, she’d kill them herself.

Soon after, Deborah asked Bobbette what pregnant was. Bobbette told her, then grabbed Deborah’s shoulders again and told her to listen good. “I know your mother and father and all the cousins all mingled together in their own way, but don’t you ever do it, Dale. Cousins are not supposed to be havin sex with each other. That’s uncalled for.”

Deborah nodded.

“You promise me,” Bobbette said. “You fight them if they try and get with you—I don’t care if you have to hurt them. Don’t let them touch you.”

Deborah promised she wouldn’t.

“You just got to go to school,” Bobbette said. “Don’t mess with boy cousins, and don’t have babies until you’re grown.”

Deborah wasn’t thinking about having babies anytime soon, but by the time she turned thirteen she was thinking about marrying that neighbor boy everyone called Cheetah, mainly because she thought Galen would have to stop touching her if she had a husband. She was also thinking she’d drop out of school.

Like her brothers, she’d always struggled in school because she couldn’t hear the teacher. None of the Lacks children could hear much unless the person speaking was nearby, talking loud and slow. But they’d been taught to keep quiet with adults, so they never told their teachers how much they were missing. None of them would realize the extent of their deafness or get hearing aids until later in life.

When Deborah told Bobbette she wanted to leave school, Bobbette said, “Sit up front if you can’t hear. I don’t care what you do, but you get an education, cause that’s your only hope.”

So Deborah stayed in school. She spent summers in Clover, and as she developed, her boy cousins would grab her and try to have their way. Sometimes they’d try to drag her into a field or behind a house. Deborah fought back with fists and teeth, and soon the cousins left her alone. They’d sneer at her, tell her she was ugly, and say, “Dale mean—she born mean and she gonna stay mean.” Still, three or four cousins asked Deborah to marry them and she just laughed, saying, “Man, is you crazy? That ain’t no game, you know? It affects the child!”

Bobbette had told Deborah that maybe she and her siblings had hearing problems be-cause their parents were first cousins. Deborah knew other cousins had children who were dwarves, or whose minds never developed. She wondered if that had something to do with what happened to Elsie.

Deborah didn’t know she had a sister for much of her childhood. When Day finally told her, all he said was that Elsie was deaf and dumb and she’d died in an institution when she was fifteen. Deborah was devastated. She demanded to know if anyone ever tried to teach her sister sign language. No one had.

Deborah begged Lawrence to tell her about their sister, but the only thing he’d say was that she was beautiful, and that he had to take her everywhere he went so he could protect her. Deborah couldn’t shake the idea that since Elsie couldn’t talk, she couldn’t have said no to boys like Deborah did, or tell anyone if something bad happened. Deborah hounded Lawrence to tell her anything he remembered about their sister and mother. Eventually he broke down sobbing and Deborah stopped asking.

When she was in high school, Deborah cried and lay awake at night worrying about what awful things might have happened to her mother and sister. She’d ask Day and her parents’ cousins, “What in the world happened to my sister? And who was my mother? What happened to her?” Day just said the same thing again and again: “Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she died when you was too young to remember.”

DMU Timestamp: February 12, 2021 19:33