In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be immortal. A striking example is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumor removed from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.)
That was it. I looked up HeLa in my parents encyclopedia, then my dictionary: No Henrietta.
As I graduated from high school and worked my way through college toward a biology degree, HeLa cells were omnipresent. I heard about them in histology, neurology, pathology; I used them in experiments on how neighboring cells communicate. But after Mr. Defler, no one mentioned Henrietta.
When I got my first computer in the mid-nineties and started using the Internet, I searched for information about her, but found only confused snippets: most sites said her name was Helen Lane; some said she died in the thirties; others said the forties, fifties, or even sixties. Some said ovarian cancer killed her, others said breast or cervical cancer.
Eventually I tracked down a few magazine articles about her from the seventies. Ebony quoted Henriettas husband saying, All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them. Jet said the family was angryangry that Henriettas cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge. It said, Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling that science and the press had taken advantage of them.
The articles all ran photos of Henriettas family: her oldest son sitting at his dining room table in Baltimore, looking at a genetics textbook. Her middle son in military uniform, smiling and holding a baby. But one picture stood out more than any other: in it, Henriettas daughter, Deborah Lacks, is surrounded by family, everyone smiling, arms around each other, eyes bright and excited. Except Deborah. She stands in the foreground looking alone, almost as if someone pasted her into the photo after the fact. Shes twenty-six years old and beautiful, with short brown hair and catlike eyes. But those eyes glare at the camera, hard and serious. The caption said the family had found out just a few months earlier that Henriettas cells were still alive, yet at that point shed been dead for twenty-five years.
All of the stories mentioned that scientists had begun doing research on Henriettas children, but the Lackses didnt seem to know what that research was for. They said they were being tested to see if they had the cancer that killed Henrietta, but according to the reporters, scientists were studying the Lacks family to learn more about Henriettas cells. The stories quoted her son Lawrence, who wanted to know if the immortality of his mothers cells meant that he might live forever too. But one member of the family remained voiceless: Henriettas daughter, Deborah.
As I worked my way through graduate school studying writing, I became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henriettas story. At one point I even called directory assistance in Baltimore looking for Henriettas husband, David Lacks, but he wasnt listed. I had the idea that Id write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman they came fromsomeones daughter, wife, and mother.
I couldnt have imagined it then, but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decadelong adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist. While trying to make sense of the history of cell culture and the complicated ethical debate surrounding the use of human tissues in research, Id be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall both physically and metaphorically, and Id eventually find myself on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism. I did eventually meet Deborah, who would turn out to be one of the strongest and most resilient women Id ever known. Wed form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, Id become a character in her story, and she in mine.
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