S4L Book Club – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Michael Rogers, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, publishes a story about Henrietta and her family.  This is the first time the mainstream media reports about Henrietta and her family, and that they were black.  Henrietta’s sons become convinced Hopkins stole her cells and made millions.

  1. George Gey didn’t make money from of the HeLa cell line.  He also didn’t patent the roller drum that could have made him a fortune.  What does this say about Gey and his character?
  2. What do you think the implications were when the world discovered in 1976 that one of the most important tools in medicine came from a black woman?

Categories: Reading

2 replies »

  1. George Gey wasn’t motivated by financial gain, that much seems pretty clear. He was curious; he wanted to advance research and knowledge; and he probably took great pleasure in the process of discovery, trying new things, pushing boundaries.

    I’ve said it before: he’s my favorite character in the book. His energy, enthusiasm, and drive inspire me.

    I don’t think the book really delved into the world’s response to the revelation that HeLa cells came from a black woman. I would guess there would be many different reactions, from indifference, to a sense of pride, to fear that treatments coming from research on these cells would taint other populations or might not work on other races, to a sense that this “honor” was wrongfully bestowed.

    I didn’t get a sense that race was a big factor in the hullabaloo that surrounded the cells, except that Johns Hopkins was the only place Henrietta could go for medical treatment. People seemed more concerned that human cells were mixed with animal cells. To Henrietta’s doctor and the researchers, the race of the cell donor was a non-issue.

  2. Question 1- I think the topic of George Gey’s nature has been pretty thoroughly discussed. I respect and admire him.

    Question 2- I didn’t get the feeling that the world really reacted to the fact that Henrietta was black. I do recall being touched by the irony of the comment early in the book that Hopkins provided a great source of research subjects via the black wards.