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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
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A massive bestseller when it was published in 2010 and the basis for an HBO miniseries of the same name, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a young African-American woman killed by a particularly vicious form of cancer, and her incredible cancer cells, which opened up entirely new directions in scientific research due to their “immortality”—their capacity to grow rapidly and unstoppably outside of her body.

The author of the book, science reporter Rebecca Skloot, spent 10 years researching Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the scientific advances her indefatigable cells made possible. In the course of her reporting, Skloot became close with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, and much of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is devoted to Deborah’s struggles with her mother’s absence and scientific legacy.

1920s–1950s

Loretta Pleasant, called Henrietta, was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, and raised in a small town in Virginia called Clover. At fourteen, she gave birth to her first child, a son named Lawrence; the father was her cousin, David “Day” Lacks. Four years later, she had a second child by him named Lucile Elsie, whom everyone called Elsie and who evidenced traits of a developmental disability. (Elsie would later be institutionalized.)

Day and Henrietta were married in 1941, and shortly thereafter, they moved to Turner Station, a booming industrial neighborhood in Baltimore. They had three more children—David, Jr. (Sonny), Deborah, and Joe (later Zakariyya)—the last in 1950.

In 1951, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins Hospital after discovering a lump on her cervix. Her doctor took a sample of the lump for a biopsy. The tumor proved malignant, and Henrietta began to undergo radiation treatments—which, at the time, consisted of radium plaques placed directly on the tumor. The surgeon performing the initial treatment, without telling Henrietta, excised two slivers of tissue from her tumor for a researcher at Hopkins named George Gey.

Growing human cells in “culture”—i.e., in test tubes in the lab—had been an elusive advance for scientific researchers; most human cells lasted a few days then died. Henrietta’s cells, however—dubbed “HeLa” by Gey’s lab technician—grew at a constant rate, doubling every 24 hours. Suddenly Gey had an inexhaustible supply of human cells on which to conduct experiments.

Henrietta’s cancer, meanwhile, seemed to be responding well to the radiation. The initial radium treatment had shrunk the tumor, and subsequent X-ray treatments caused the tumor to disappear entirely. Unfortunately, the radiation had a gruesome side effect: it burned the skin of her torso black.

Sometime after her course of treatment ended, Henrietta began to feel aches in her abdomen. Initially the doctors found nothing wrong, but after Henrietta returned to Hopkins several times, a doctor ordered an X-ray and found a mass blocking her urethra. It was inoperable. In a matter of weeks tumors colonized her body, and she was admitted to the hospital to undergo treatment to ease her pain and perhaps prolong her life. She died on October 4, 1951, less than a year after she first visited Hopkins.

After an autopsy, during which more samples were taken from Henrietta’s body without her family’s informed consent, Henrietta was buried in Clover in an unmarked grave.

In a cruel twist, as Henrietta’s health declined, HeLa cells were energizing cell research. George Gey had developed effective and reproducible cell culturing and preservation techniques, and he was sending HeLa cells all over the world.

Progress in Science

Around the same time that Henrietta was buried, an ambitious study was launched to prove the effectivity of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. The study necessitated a tremendous number of cultured human cells—HeLa cells, initially provided by George Gey and grown in massive quantities at the Tuskegee Institute, the renowned black university.

HeLa cells were subsequently used in an array of research—genetics, virology, infectious and sexually transmitted diseases, even cosmetics. HeLa cells were the first cells to be cloned, and they were bombarded with radiation to see how they responded (it was the Cold War era, after all). They were also the first cells to be cultured commercially, for profit.

1950s–1960s

The Lacks family was oblivious to the scientific and commercial value of Henrietta’s cells—they didn’t even know her cells had been taken. While HeLa was growing all over the world, the Lacks family was dealing with the aftermath of Henrietta’s death.

Perhaps the most destructive outcome of Henrietta’s death was that Henrietta’s adult cousin, Galen, and his wife, Ethel, moved in with the Lackses. Deborah, only ten years old, was physically abused and pursued sexually by Galen, and all the children, but especially Joe, were beaten by Ethel. Ethel’s abuse of Joe would cause permanent emotional damage: Joe, who would later change his name to Zakariyya in jail after being found guilty of murder, would struggle with anger his entire life.

Having escaped Ethel and Galen by moving in with her brother Lawrence, Deborah had her first child at 16 and married the father when she was 18. After the birth of their second child, Deborah’s husband began using drugs and physically abusing her. When she started to contemplate killing him, she knew she had to leave; she took her children and moved back in with her father.

Progress in Science

During this same period, while Henrietta’s children suffered, her cells were at the heart of a sequence of scientific crises both ethical and institutional.

In the early 1960s, a cancer researcher at Sloan-Kettering began injecting both cancer-afflicted and healthy patients with HeLa cells to determine their effects on human beings. Controversially, the doctor did not adequately explain—if he explained at all—what he was doing to the patients....

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Prologue

Author Rebecca Skloot was introduced to Henrietta Lacks—or, rather, her remarkable cells—in a biology class when Skloot was 16.

Her teacher was describing the parts and functions of cells. Cells resemble nothing so much as fried eggs: the white of the egg is the cytoplasm, which contains water and proteins to nourish the yolk of the egg—the nucleus—which contains the genetic material that dictates the cell’s function.

Cells divide through a process called mitosis. If something goes wrong during mitosis, even something minuscule, it can result in a cell growing and dividing uncontrollably—cancer.

Scientists’ understanding of how cancer operates increased enormously through the study of a particularly robust set of cancer cells taken from an African-American woman named...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Part 1 | Chapter 1: Birth and Early Life

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA, the ninth child of Johnny Pleasant and Eliza Lacks Pleasant. Her birth name was Loretta; no one knows how she ended up being called Henrietta.

Henrietta was descended from slaves. On her father’s side, she descended from slaves owned by a tobacco farmer named Pleasants (the s was later dropped). On her mother’s side, she descended from a white owner of slaves and a former slave who’d continued to work on the Lacks tobacco farm after emancipation as a sharecropper. In their wills, both Henrietta’s white great-grandfather and his brother left land to their black heirs, and white and black Lackses were buried alongside one another in the tobacco farm’s graveyard.

(Shortform note: Skloot uses the word “slaves” rather than “enslaved people” and lowercases “black” and “white” when they denote race. We follow her usage in our summary.)

After Eliza died giving birth to her tenth child, Johnny packed up the entire family and moved them to the Lacks tobacco farm, which was located in Clover, VA.

Because there...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 2: Diagnosis and Initial Treatment

In 1950, before she became pregnant with her fifth child, Joseph, Henrietta told two cousins that she felt a “knot” in her abdomen. Although the relatives suggested Henrietta see a doctor, she didn’t end up going. One of the relatives believed Henrietta didn’t go because she was afraid the doctor would remove her womb and prevent her from having more children. Shortly after Henrietta confided in her relatives, she became pregnant, and talk about the knot faded.

Four and a half months after Joseph was born, however, Henrietta discovered blood in her underwear. She ran a hot bath and performed a self-examination on her cervix. She found a lump next to the opening of her womb.

She told Day that she was bleeding but wasn’t menstruating, and he took her to see a local doctor. At first the doctor thought the lump was syphilis, but the syphilis test came back negative. The doctor recommended Henrietta visit the Johns Hopkins gynecology clinic.

Johns Hopkins had been founded as a charity hospital in 1889. By the 1950s, it was one of the most admired hospitals in the country. It was located in East Baltimore, and its public wards reflected its community: **Most of the patients were...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 3: Cells in Culture and Lacks’s Death

HeLa cells were unlike anything scientists had seen previously. They were truly “immortal”—properly cultured, HeLa cells would grow indefinitely.

The discovery of HeLa came at an important time in the history of cell science. Five years before Henrietta’s cancer cells thrived in Gey’s laboratory, a scandal had come to light involving a Nobel Prize–winning French surgeon named Alexis Carrel.

Although Carrel had won his Nobel for inventing a technique for suturing blood vessels, his notoriety was largely due to his breakthrough in the field of cell culture: He’d managed to maintain living chicken-heart cells in his laboratory.

This feat was greeted with all sorts of hyperbole: that Carrel had found the fountain of youth, that cell culture would lead humans to uncover the secrets to artistic and scientific genius.

Carrel himself, however, wasn’t much interested in the advancement of all humanity. He was a eugenicist and Nazi sympathizer, and he believed his work with cells would allow whites to outlive inferior peoples.

He was also an eccentric who, despite his scientific acumen, entertained mystical and occult beliefs. He thought telepathy and clairvoyance were real; and...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Part 2 | Chapter 4: Lacks’s Funeral and the Growth of Her Children

Upon learning that Henrietta had passed, George Gey asked Henrietta’s doctors to perform an autopsy in the hope of extracting more “immortal” cells. But, whereas doctors could take cell samples from a living patient without permission, autopsies and extracting tissue from the dead did require permission. At first Day denied the doctors that permission, but he eventually relented.

The pathologist removed many of Henrietta’s organs, including her bladder, uterus, appendix, and heart; many of these organs were covered in tumors. The official cause of death was terminal uremia (blood poisoning): Tumors had entirely blocked Henrietta’s urethra, preventing her from passing urine and doctors from inserting a catheter.

Henrietta was buried in Clover. It rained for days leading up to her funeral, and on the day she was buried, as soon as her coffin was lowered into her grave behind the home-house, the sky turned black and a massive gust of wind tore the metal roof of a barn and sent it flying above Henrietta’s grave. The wind was so strong, according to the Lacks cousins that attended the funeral, that it tore one cousin’s cabin out of the ground, killing the cousin...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 5: HeLa and Polio

The first major use of HeLa cells was in the fight against polio.

Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine in 1952, but he couldn’t judge its effectiveness until it had been tested on a massive scale. The National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) developed a trial—it would inoculate 2 million children with Salk’s vaccine and then test the children’s blood for immunity.

To test for immunity, the children’s blood would have to be mixed with cells infected with poliovirus. In the past, these cells came from monkeys, but the extraction procedure killed the monkeys and monkeys were expensive. (Animal rights activism wasn’t as prominent in the 1950s as it is today.)

The NFIP contacted George Gey, who had discovered that HeLa cells could grow “in suspension”—that is, unlike previous cell cultures, which needed a glass surface to adhere to, HeLa cells could grow floating in a culture medium as long as they were continually stirred. This meant that they could grow in large vessels as long as there was ample medium.

Once Gey and a colleague from NFIP determined that HeLa cells were in fact susceptible to poliovirus—some cells were naturally resistant—the colleague was...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 6: HeLa and Medical Ethics

In 1954, a Sloan-Kettering cancer researcher and virologist named Chester Southam who’d worked extensively with HeLa cells began to wonder—and to worry—whether researchers could develop cancer through contact with HeLa cells. And so he began a series of experiments to determine HeLa cells’ effects on living human subjects.

His first experiments were conducted on patients who already had cancer. He injected HeLa cells into these patients’ arms, telling them that he was testing their immune systems, and then monitored the results. Within days, cancerous nodules formed on the patients’ arms. Some of these patients’ nodules went away on their own, others Southam had to remove. But in four patients, the nodules came back again and again after removal; and in one patient, the cancer spread to her lymph nodes.

Despite the obvious health risks, Southam continued to experiment with HeLa cells on human subjects. The shortcoming of the first experiment, according to him, was that it was conducted on patients who already had cancer. In order to get a true sense of the effects of HeLa cells, he needed to test them on healthy patients.

Which he did. In 1956, he recruited 150...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 7: HeLa and Controversies in Cell Culture

By the time Southam’s and Mandel’s licenses were being reviewed, HeLa cells—and cell cultures—were ubiquitous. HeLa cells accompanied both Russian and American astronauts into space (scientists wanted to study the effects of space travel on human cells). The magazine Scientific American even offered readers instructions on how to culture HeLa cells at home!

HeLa cells were also the impetus for major institutional changes in the way cell cultures were handled. By the 1960s, scientists had begun culturing all sorts of cells from all sorts of species and organs. But despite this diversity of origin, researchers discovered that these cultured cells all met the same end: They either died or spontaneously turned cancerous. **And when they...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 8: More Trouble for the Lackses

In the 60s, while HeLa cells were occupying a central role in scientific research and being shot into space, Henrietta’s children were struggling with the repercussions of their traumatic childhood.

By 1966, 18-year-old Deborah had embarked on a relationship with Cheetah Carter, the boy she’d been walking with when Galen punched her, and become pregnant with their first child, Alfred, Jr. Deborah’s pregnancy notwithstanding, Bobbette insisted Deborah finish high school and get a job, and Bobbette helped take care of Alfred Jr. so Deborah could do so.

Lawrence, the eldest Lacks child, had a convenience store, and Sonny had joined the Air Force—they were thriving. Joe, however, the youngest, was struggling. The abuse Ethel had heaped on him had caused him to develop severe anger management issues. His tendency to pick fights resulted in his...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 9: The HeLa Epidemic

With the creation of the CCCC and its cell bank, the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), scientists assumed that they’d protected their most cherished cell cultures from contamination.

But in 1966, at a major conference of cell scientists, a geneticist named Stanley Gartler announced that the 18 most-frequently-used cell cultures—which were ostensibly distinct from one another—all exhibited a rare genetic marker that had only been found in African Americans. Since some of these cell cultures had been taken from caucasian subjects, Gartler’s conclusion was that all of the cell cultures had been contaminated—with HeLa.

When Gartler revealed that six of his samples came directly from the ATCC, the mood at the conference shifted dramatically. Many of the scientists had believed they were working on discrete, unique cell cultures, when in fact they were just working on HeLa.

This revelation was especially devastating for scientists working under the assumption that healthy cells could...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Part 3 | Chapter 10: The Lackses’ First Brush with HeLa

The Lacks family discovered Henrietta’s cells were still alive by chance, when Bobbette, in 1973, met a researcher at the National Cancer Institute who was working with HeLa cells and had recently read one of the articles that identified Henrietta. Bobbette immediately told Lawrence, who told Day. When Lawrence called Hopkins to ask about his mother, however, the switchboard operator couldn’t find any records for a patient with that name.

Soon enough, though, Hopkins contacted them. A Hopkins geneticist named Victor McKusick, who’d been one of the authors to first publish Henrietta’s real name, had volunteered to take the lead on addressing the contamination issue that was then upending cell science. His idea was that, if he could draw blood from Henrietta’s descendants, he could isolate certain gene markers that would allow him to determine which cells were HeLa and which weren’t. And since the Lackses were Hopkins patients, he had easy access to their medical records and contact information.

McKusick deputized a postdoctoral fellow named Susan Hsu to collect the blood samples from the Lackses. Hsu was Chinese and had recently immigrated to the United States; English was...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 11: The Lackses Learn the Truth

It wasn’t until a Rolling Stone reporter named Michael Rogers visited the family in 1975 that the Lackses finally understood the full significance of their mother’s cells.

Rogers knew immediately that the family had been kept in the dark about HeLa contamination and the doctors’ reasons for drawing blood. He explained cell culture and the stakes of the HeLa outbreak to the best of his ability.

At the time, no one besides Deborah was too disturbed by their mother’s cells’ wide spread. But that changed when Rogers’ story was published and the Lackses discovered that HeLa cells were not only distributed for free by nonprofit institutions but also sold by commercial firms.

This revelation caused Sonny and Lawrence to believe that Hopkins and George Gey had gotten rich selling their mother’s cells. The truth, however, was that Gey was a terrible businessman and never rich at all: He patented neither the HeLa cell line nor the roller drum he created to culture cells—either of which would have made him a multimillionaire—and at times had trouble making payments on his modest house. And Hopkins has issued multiple statements asserting the institution has received no...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 12: John Moore’s Cells

John Moore was a hard-working surveyor working on the Alaska Pipeline when he discovered he had a rare cancer called hairy-cell Leukemia. This type of cancer caused his spleen to fill with cancerous blood cells.

He was referred by his local doctor to David Golde, a cancer researcher at UCLA, who told Moore that the only option was to remove the spleen. Moore consented, signing a form that allowed the hospital to dispose of any tissue by cremation.

Moore survived and started a new career in Seattle. Every few months, however, between 1976 and 1983, Golde had him fly down to Los Angeles for follow-ups. During these follow-ups, Golde would take samples of everything from bone marrow to semen. At a certain point, Moore got tired of all the travel and asked Golde if he could see a doctor closer to home. Golde offered to fly Moore down and pay for stays at a fancy hotel, an offer Moore thought was strange but accepted.

In 1983, however, when a nurse asked Moore to sign a form relinquishing his rights to any products the University of California developed from his cells, he became suspicious. The first time he was offered the form, he circled “do” and agreed to hand over his rights....

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 13: The Lackses (and HeLa) in the 80s

Deborah divorced Cheetah in 1976 and remarried in 1980. Her second husband, James Pullum, was a mechanic, and he’d been a petty criminal before finding Christianity. He’d begun moonlighting as a preacher shortly before he and Deborah wed.

Zakariyya, for his part, had been released from jail early, having served about half of his fifteen-year sentence. He was effectively homeless: His anger issues made keeping a job difficult, and he resented Day so intensely for leaving him to Ethel’s abuse that he refused to sleep in Day’s house. He would often sleep on the steps of a church across the street from Day’s; it wasn’t uncommon for Day to pass his own son sleeping on the concrete when he left the house.

Desperate for money, Zakariyya began volunteering for scientific studies at Hopkins. Among other experiments, he allowed himself to be infected with malaria to test a new drug. The researchers had no idea he was Henrietta Lacks’s son because of his new name.

Sonny, meanwhile, was in jail for selling drugs; and Deborah’s son, Alfred, had been arrested multiple times for crimes like breaking and entering. Alfred enlisted in the Marines but went AWOL, and even a stint in a...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 14: Deborah’s Breakdown

1996 was a triumphant year in the Lacks family story. The BBC began filming a documentary about Henrietta and HeLa, and Roland Pattillo, a gynecologist at Morehouse School of Medicine and one of George Gey’s only African-American students, organized the inaugural HeLa Cancer Control Symposium. The symposium featured research presentations on cancer in minority populations, and Pattillo even managed to get the city of Atlanta to declare October 11, 1996, Henrietta Lacks Day.

The Lacks family was invited to the conference and welcomed as honored guests; people even asked for their autographs. It was a pivotal moment for Deborah, who gave a heartfelt speech about how much she missed her mother.

The BBC filmed the conference, and shortly thereafter visited Turner Station to interview residents about Henrietta. Their presence piqued the interest of Courtney Speed, the owner of a local grocery store and beauty parlor, who’d just founded an organization devoted to raising Turner Station’s profile by touting famous residents of the past.

Speed and a colleague named Barbara Wyche began writing letters to federal and state politicians, as well as the Smithsonian museum, urging them...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 15: Getting in Touch with the Lackses

Around the same time that Deborah was learning about the traumas her mother and sister had endured, Skloot was conducting research into Henrietta. In 1999, on her twenty-seventh birthday, Skloot came across a collection of papers delivered at Pattillo’s conference dedicated to Henrietta.

Skloot immediately called Pattillo. She explained she was writing a book on Henrietta Lacks and asked Pattillo if he could put her in touch with Henrietta’s surviving family. Pattillo, skeptical of Skloot’s intentions, asked her what she knew about African-Americans’ historical experience with medical researchers in the US. Skloot described the Tuskegee syphilis study, “Mississippi Appendectomies,” and the lack of funding for sickle-cell anemia.

Mississippi Appendectomies

An outgrowth of the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s in the US, “Mississippi Appendectomies” were involuntary hysterectomies performed on black women, typically in the Deep South. These surgeries were performed to prevent African-Americans from reproducing as well as to allow doctors “practice” in performing the procedure. Between the 1930s and 1970s, thousands of African-Americans, men and women, were...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 16: Meeting the Lackses

On New Year’s Day 2000, two months after Skloot initially went to Baltimore to meet Sonny Lacks and he turned her down, Skloot was finally able to meet the Lacks men.

The first Lacks she met was Sonny, who picked her up at her hotel to bring her to Lawrence’s. He was about 5’9”, with a manicured mustache and a kind affect.

In the car, Sonny told Skloot that he didn’t remember his mother; everything he knew he’d learned second-hand. He’d been told she was “nice” and attractive and a good cook. And he knew that her cells had played a role in medical advances like the vaccine for polio.

Sonny brought Skloot to Lawrence’s but didn’t come inside—he drove off immediately after Skloot exited the car. Inside Lawrence’s, Skloot found Lawrence cooking pork chops. He was six feet tall and close to 300 pounds.

Skloot accepted Lawrence’s offer of food, and while he cooked, he told Skloot about life in Clover and tobacco farming. Whenever Skloot brought up Henrietta, Lawrence changed the subject. Finally, he admitted that he’d repressed his memories of his mother, and that the only thing he remembered about her was that she was strict with him.

They sat at a table in the living...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 17: Chasing Deborah

Although Skloot had already met many of Henrietta’s relatives and descendants, it would take almost a year for Deborah to consent to meeting Skloot. During that time, Skloot would call Deborah regularly, leaving messages that described the aspects of Henrietta’s life she was uncovering through her research and reporting.

Finally, in July of 2000, Skloot and Deborah met. Deborah was around five feet tall and 200 pounds, and she walked with a cane. She joked that her hair was gray because she was the one member of the family worrying about her mother.

Deborah had come to Skloot’s B&B, and the two went up to Skloot’s room, where Skloot gave Deborah a gift. Skloot had published an article on the Lacks men in Johns Hopkins Magazine, and a Hopkins cancer researcher named Christoph Lengauer had read the article and gotten in touch with her. Lengauer had used HeLa cells to develop a technique for “painting” chromosomes with fluorescent dye, which, when viewed under fluorescent light, revealed aspects of the DNA that wouldn’t otherwise be detectable. Lengauer wanted to thank the Lacks family for Henrietta’s contribution to science, so he framed a picture of HeLa cells brilliantly...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 18: Deborah Sees HeLa and Learns About Elsie

In April 2001, almost a year after Skloot and Deborah finally met in person, Deborah received an invitation to the National Foundation for Cancer Research’s annual conference. The conference would be held in Henrietta’s honor, and the president would present Deborah a plaque to commemorate her mother’s contribution to science. Deborah decided that she needed to see her mother’s cells before she attended the conference.

Unfortunately, on the same day that Deborah called Skloot about the conference, she also learned her son Alfred had been arrested. He and a friend had robbed several liquor stores at gunpoint, and the police apprehended Alfred at his house in front of his son, Alfred Jr.

A month later Deborah, Zakariyya, and Skloot met on Hopkins campus to visit Lengauer’s lab. The others Skloot had invited weren’t in attendance. Even though Day had long wanted to see his wife’s cells, he wasn’t able to join them. His health was in bad decline—he was eighty-five, had heart problems and high blood pressure, and had had a leg amputated due to Diabetes. Sonny had to go to his job, and Lawrence, for his part, had become convinced that Skloot was working with Hopkins to spy on the...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 19: Henrietta’s Records

Minutes after Skloot closed the door to her room, Deborah reappeared: She wanted to look through the records with Skloot.

The records filled an entire bag. When Deborah upended the bag over the bed, Skloot saw a hundred-plus pages in complete disarray fall onto the coverlet. And Deborah refused to allow Skloot to photocopy the materials: She insisted that Skloot sort through the papers and take notes in front of her.

As they sorted through the documents, Deborah alternated between excitement and panic; sometimes she would hand Skloot documents to read, other times hide documents under Skloot’s pillow. Finally, she curled up on Skloot’s bed, staring at the picture of Elsie and occasionally providing comment about what she thought Elsie must have been feeling.

After hours of reviewing the material, Skloot sat back,...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 20: Clover and Back to Baltimore

By the time Skloot and Deborah arrived in Clover, Deborah’s hives had worsened and she was swigging from a bottle of Benadryl to manage the reaction. Their first stop was the home-house, where Henrietta had grown up. Deborah had Skloot take pictures of her holding up Elsie’s pictures—in front of the home-house, by Henrietta’s favorite tree, and in the family graveyard near where Henrietta was supposed to have been buried.

They then visited Deborah’s aunt, Gladys. Even though it was relatively warm outside, inside Gladys had a large wood stove burning so hot she perspired. Soon after Skloot and Deborah’s arrival, Gladys’s son, Gary, came through the front door. Deborah immediately showed Gary the newly discovered picture of Elsie and began pacing around the room, rambling about Elsie and Henrietta and random news headlines.

Gary, who’d sat in a large recliner, attempted to calm Deborah. He managed to get her to sit, but only for an instant—soon enough she was up and pacing again, talking a blue streak about what she and Skloot had learned about her mother. Gary made frequent references to scripture, urging Deborah to trust in God and worry more about her herself and less about...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Chapter 21: Recovery and Tragedy

The day Deborah left the hospital was Skloot’s birthday. Deborah called Skloot and left a calmly delivered message letting her know she’d had a stroke and wouldn’t be able to meet Skloot in Clover, as they’d planned. Though she wasn’t yet fully recovered, the doctors believed she would eventually regain full function.

Deborah told Skloot that her doctor had told her she needed to learn to control her blood pressure and blood sugar; otherwise, a second stroke, which would likely be worse than the first, was probable. Deborah took the doctor’s advice as another sign she needed to go back to school: She could take a nutrition class to learn how to eat healthily.

Unfortunately, the obstacle to Deborah’s returning to school wasn’t her health or drive but poverty: Her social security benefits simply weren’t enough to cover both her living expenses and classes and books. Eventually she set aside her own dreams of higher education and began concentrating on making sure her own and her siblings’ grandchildren had the opportunities she and her siblings hadn’t.

Shortly after Deborah’s discharge from the hospital, Skloot joined her at her church to watch the baptism of Sonny’s...

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Guide Epilogue: Where They Are Now

(As of 2009)

  • Deborah’s son, Alfred Jr., is serving a 30-year prison sentence for armed robbery and assault. He has earned his GED and has taught GED class to fellow prisoners.
  • Skloot was unable to find Dr. Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield. He filed a lawsuit in 2008, his last to date, in which he sued 226 entities and people for over $10 billion.
  • Howard Jones, the Hopkins gynecologist that treated Lacks, is emeritus professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and Eastern Virginia Medical School. He and his wife Georgeanna, also a doctor, oversaw the birth of the first test-tube baby in the United States.
  • Lacks’s sons, Sonny, Lawrence, and Zakariyya were profoundly affected by Deborah’s death. Zakariyya achieved inner peace through studying yogis, and he now treats his nieces and nephews with kindness and affection. Lawrence charged over $6,000 to his credit cards to pay for Deborah’s funeral. And Sonny has taken over Deborah’s quest to raise people’s awareness of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science.
  • Christoph Lengauer, the Hopkins scientist who invited the Lacks family to visit his lab, works for Sanofi-Aventis, a multinational...

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Shortform Exercise: The Ethics of Scientific Research

Explore the ethical dilemmas raised by Henrietta Lacks’s story.


Should Henrietta’s doctors have notified her that they were taking a sample of her cancer cells for research? Why or why not?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Prologue
  • Part 1 | Chapter 1: Birth and Early Life
  • Chapter 2: Diagnosis and Initial Treatment
  • Chapter 3: Cells in Culture and Lacks’s Death
  • Part 2 | Chapter 4: Lacks’s Funeral and the Growth of Her Children
  • Chapter 5: HeLa and Polio
  • Chapter 6: HeLa and Medical Ethics
  • Chapter 7: HeLa and Controversies in Cell Culture
  • Chapter 8: More Trouble for the Lackses
  • Chapter 9: The HeLa Epidemic
  • Part 3 | Chapter 10: The Lackses’ First Brush with HeLa
  • Chapter 11: The Lackses Learn the Truth
  • Chapter 12: John Moore’s Cells
  • Chapter 13: The Lackses (and HeLa) in the 80s
  • Chapter 14: Deborah’s Breakdown
  • Chapter 15: Getting in Touch with the Lackses
  • Chapter 16: Meeting the Lackses
  • Chapter 17: Chasing Deborah
  • Chapter 18: Deborah Sees HeLa and Learns About Elsie
  • Chapter 19: Henrietta’s Records
  • Chapter 20: Clover and Back to Baltimore
  • Chapter 21: Recovery and Tragedy
  • Epilogue: Where They Are Now
  • Exercise: The Ethics of Scientific Research