Return Home

Henrietta's Tumor

Back to Episode

We end with the extraordinary story of Henrietta Lacks. Though she died of cervical cancer in 1951, she unknowingly held the key to unlocking medical advancements (from polio vaccines to chemotherapy drugs) in her tumor cells. After taking a biopsy of Henrietta's cervical cancer, researcher Dr. George Gey and his lab assistant Mary Kubicek, discovered that Henrietta's cells could not only reproduce, but THRIVE outside the body--a breakthrough that would change modern medicine. Later, Dr. Stanley Gartler found that Henrietta's cells were even capable of jumping out of the petri dish and colonizing other cell strains. Now, decades after Henrietta's death, her cells are still alive.

But who was the long-obscured woman behind these famous cells? And how did Henrietta's family feel when they learned that part of their mother was still alive? Writer Rebecca Skloot takes us on a journey into Henrietta's world, with Henrietta's daughter Deborah as the guide.

Comments [45]

Cheryl Willis from Fresno California

Reading the book for an English class. Listened to this lab in a quiet hotel room. I love the actual tapes of the interviews. I found myself closing my eyes and trying to envision Deborah and her cousin Gary praying together! Awesome job Ms. Skloot. I then watched the cell video. I really didn't understand it, which gave me a better appreciation for how Deborah must have felt when she was being told things she didn't understand.

Mar. 07 2018 06:24 PM
Joe...Doesn't matter

Hello from science class

Mar. 06 2018 08:23 AM

"stimulating the cells by cutting"..this is how Henrietta's death was hastily sped up, was it not? When they took numerous tissue samples from her tumor and prodded and probed taking notes in wonder of how it bled so profusely just on touch alone.

HeLa is "valuable for the cultivation of viruses".. so most our vaccinations were cultivated in HeLa.

Is HeLa also used in GM crops?

So very comforting.

I bet she was a beautiful dancer!

Jun. 05 2016 09:27 AM
Colleen Ranney from United States

Studying molecular biology in college and then molecular toxicology (late 70's to 80's) I used these cells and never knew or even asked the questions that Ms. Skloot did in her book. I read the book last year in preparation to teach AP Biology and was so moved. I didn't know this segment existed until driving this weekend and listening to the repeat of Radiolab. Thanks for a great program. I will be using segments this week in class. Wanted to point out that you merged some time in there saying that Deborah found out her mother's cells were alive in the late 70's and then did some "searches" and found...." . Then Ms. Skloot says something about "google". It is not clear from the segment the span of time that actually took place. The online searches happened so many years later, but the original "searches" were done the old fashioned way. (A segment just on that issue by Ms. Skloot or others would be beneficial to show this current generation of high school/college kids the enormous acceleration and democratization that the Internet has brought to research.

Mar. 08 2015 10:58 PM
Barbra Kingman from Tucson, A

I have read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks three times in an effort to wrap my brain around both the science and the human story. Incredible.

Mar. 08 2015 05:25 PM
falk burger from tucson, AZ

The notion that a person can feel what is done to cells severed from her body is absurd. Cut off a finger, and it will remain viable for hours. Can the amputee feel it if her severed finger is pricked? No! In fact, if you cut the nerves to the finger but leave it attached to the body, if you prick it, the subject will feel nothing. When it comes to metaphysics, "The Truth Is Out There - Only in Theatres!"

Mar. 08 2015 05:07 PM
J. Deary

In response to Sonja Wood from California, indeed we never know where cell breakthroughs may come from.

Apparently there are promising possibility from cells from 3 diseases. (I'm ashamed I can't remember which ones -- possibly the common cold and maybe the plague.) They are being developed to find and attack cancer cells while they leave healthy cells alone. This breakthrough represents a cancer CURE. I heard about it on an HBO program entitled "VICE Special Report: Killing Cancer". It was made more believable to me because I had read the Henrietta Lacks book and the astounding miracle of her cells.

Mar. 08 2015 04:22 PM

At what point can we exclude these racist and their families from medical discoveries sourced from people they hate and plants sourced from the homeland of those same people?

Mar. 07 2015 01:34 PM
Tina from North Carolina

"Your famous and no one know it"

Sep. 17 2014 04:50 AM
Sonja Wood from California

Listening to the voices of Henrietta family brought me to tears. How amazing to know, that virtually every human being who has been inoculated may carry a portion of Henrietta Lacks within them.
Though HeLa cells are uniquely prolific, I cannot help wonder if we are all connected in ways we have not yet identified as our cells blow in the wind around us. Moreover, the HeLa cell is one anomaly, could there be other cells which carry amazing capabilities we have yet to discover. Could it be that a miracle cell is hidden inside a person whom we might least expect to carry it.

May. 25 2014 03:45 PM
hgnissm from italy

My class is watching this silly video, for no credit

Apr. 03 2014 04:07 PM
Fgraywolf from new york

Henrietta Lack right HeLa right, Her name He for Henrietta La for Lack.

Feb. 10 2014 01:01 PM
Erik The Fish

Im doing this for science class thanks radio lab. My friend kai says hi.

Jan. 15 2014 10:16 AM
Rebecca Skloot

In response to a few comments below, some clarification: The scenes depicted in this segment were recorded and aired with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved. Deborah was fully aware of (and excited about) this piece and the way it was being constructed, which Jad and I began planning long before her death.

And in response to questions about exploitation of the family and the ways in which they've benefitted from the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, see for full details.

Dec. 06 2013 11:12 AM

Privacy Flap Forces Withdrawal of DNA Data on Cancer Cell Line

Mar. 26 2013 03:01 PM
Ilya Scheidwasser from Belmont, MA

The beautiful piece of music heard here as the miraculous growth of the HeLa cells was described was Fratres by Arvo Part. Here is one version:

Feb. 06 2013 12:50 PM
Nad Tibbs from Detroit, MI

I agree wholeheartedly with Shelley. I appears that others who have commented missed the humanitarian perspective of this Mrs. Lacks ordeal. It is the same as the Scarborough Brothers and the syphilis experiments. The disregard of human life for the sake of science. Louise from Salt Lake City had an experience that could not compare with Mrs. Lacks - her father gave his blood with permission. The individual who thought this was beautiful work, Irene Schultz - well I won't comment other than ask, "What !!!!"
For a teacher of biology to post this in the fashion that she did is a total disregard for the ethics of science as was the use of humans without their permission and knowledge. I agree that is should be read by students of biology and other sciences for the discussions that can occur around ethics and science.
I applaud Dr. Quinn and her comments - Rebecca Skloots has indeed exploit the family. Shame on her.

Dec. 29 2012 04:35 PM
shelley inniss from New York City

Just another injustice Black people have been subjected to in America, the home of the brave. Henrietta was a hero who never even knew her biology was stolen, exploited and profited from. There is not a doctor in the world who has not studied or worked in the lab with HeLa cells, but the Lacks family has not ever been compensated for the illegal use of the their mother's cells. It literally killed her daughter Deborah. This podcast is just another invasion of the family's rights. It really makes me sick to my stomach as I listened to the players, including Skoot, who I thought had some compassion for the family and outrage for the monsters who in the utmost disrespect for Henrietta's remains. Yes, compensation will never be enough for what they did, but compensate they must for the role in using her as a guinea pig and allowing her to suffer while their experiments went on.

Nov. 06 2012 10:33 PM

I read the book 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' some years ago and this broadcast brought a lot back. I was especially touched to hear her daughter's and son's voices; how it affected her daughter.
Very touching. It brought me to tears.

Nov. 06 2012 07:39 PM
DIANE CHARMLEY from Vancouver, Washington

As a recently retired RN, who worked not only as an Oncology nurse, but was a research assistant in Tumor Immunology, I was enthralled with Henrietta's story. I don't usually get to know or hear back from the people and their families who provide the cancer cells we use as we search the mysteries of cancer and it's workings in the human body. The interviews with family were so moving, and the sadness Debra felt knowing not knowing what it meant for her Mom's cells to still be alive, touched me. My father died of lung cancer over 10 years ago, but prior to his diagnosis he had donated blood to my lab , and it turned out to be a cell line that grew well, and so he made several donations. All the while he had not yet been diagnosed. I love the idea that he lives on to help others.

Nov. 04 2012 02:28 PM
Jeff "Dr Chordate" Moran

Hi: As Dr Chordate, I write a lot of songs about a wide range of scientific topics, including one I wrote about Henrietta Lacks. A recording of that song can be hear here:
(or search for "Dr Chordate" on YouTube or MySpaceMusic).

Thanks for your interesting program on tumors.

Nov. 04 2012 09:03 AM
Jenny d'Heurle

The show on tumours was captivating to say the least. What really bothered me though was the flip attitude of Rebecca Skloot. It was wrenching to listen to Debra and her cousin praying. I don't think they know they were being taped. Ironic considering that Henrietta didn't know the treatement she sought was an implant full of radium. They gave her cancer, took her cells for research while she was alive and harvested her in death. The true stroy is much bigger than Radiolab conveyed.

Nov. 04 2012 03:37 AM
M from VT

This incredible, but true, medical story has needed to be told for decades, and Ms. Skloot has done daughter read the book first, handed it down to me..and I, in turn,gave it to my OB/GYN to enjoy..She, as we were fascinated by the tale,yet skeptical of Ms. Skloot. The follow up stories of her generosity have been reassuring...and today's broadcast was late in the telling, but factual and fascinating. Thank you to all.

Nov. 03 2012 09:13 PM

What I wonder about is, if the Lacks family is so concerned about money and her legacy etc., why didn't anyone put up a marker on her grave all this time. Don't tell me they couldn't afford to. If everyone in the family donated a few dollars they would've had enough for some type of marker. At the very least someone in the family could've made one of those small wooden crosses like you see on he side of the road. If they're so concerned about her then why is it even her daughter doesn't know exactly where her moms grave is? Sounds all phony emotions to me and that's really sad!

Mar. 18 2012 07:32 PM
Rebecca Skloot from Chicago

Thanks all for the kind words about the story. Just for clarity, in response to a few of the comments below: Deborah gave full consent for the use of this taped material for broadcast on television and radio, and was fully aware of (and excited about) this piece and the way it was being constructed, which Jad and I began planning long before her death.

Jan. 15 2012 12:33 AM
Renee from Chicago

I have read the book and found it to be fascinating and sad - a true miscarriage of justice. However, I was thoroughly disappointed in this broadcast. The flippant manner in which the interviewers handled the interview of Skloot was shameful. And to compound things, their disrespect of Lacks and her family rubbed off on Skloot, who also deteriorated into a less-than-respectful attitude toward this tragic experience.

Jul. 19 2011 11:43 AM
Suzzie Derkins from Texas

A Dinosaur Comic concerned with HeLa cells

Jul. 12 2011 12:01 PM
susan cutting

I, along with Henrietta and John Moore had a immortal cell line (MCF10) developed from my tissue in 1988. My cells however were normal,which made them unusual. Many of the same things happened to me that happened to Henrietta. A patent was filed on my cells. A vial of my cells are now being sold for $279 (research) and $6000 (commercial). I was assured their would be no profits.

Apr. 20 2011 11:07 AM

Having read the SKloot's book and more articles about the Hela cells, one thing which I thought was missing from the Radiolab story were the racial undertones. During the 1950s at Hopkins, Hela was shunned from certain treatments because of her race. The lack of consent retrieved from her or her family is also intrinsically linked to her race, propagating a legacy of black women being exploited. Leaving this level out did a detriment to the story and our ability to learn from it.

Mar. 27 2011 12:07 PM
Edythe Ann Quinn, Ph.D.

My college students in my Women's Health Care seminar just finished reading THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, then I heard this show on my drive home. Radiolab seemed to be hyping the tumor and cells like the media always has. When Rebecca Skloot came on with excerpts from her taped interviews with Deborah Lacks, I was surprised. Yes, we can now hear what Deborah sounded like, but did Rebecca tell Deborah she would be using the interviews for more than the book, for such entertainment? I was really offended by the use of the taped interview of Deborah’s breakdown and Gary’s healing sessions with her. We discussed at length that incredible healing session when Gary is talking through The Spirit. To me the use of it on this broadcast was a huge invasion and violation of privacy and commercialization/sensationalism of a sacred experience. Rebecca Skloot seemed to have fallen to the level of all the other exploiters of the Lacks family.

Mar. 10 2011 10:08 PM
Louise from Salt Lake City, UT

I am a teacher and have my students read about Henrietta Lacks. Thanks to Skloot for sharing her story with the world. We all need to know about her, her family and her cells. And we need to make sure her family is honored, scholarships for her descendants continue, and future use of cells and other body parts is always compensated for donors.

Jan. 20 2011 06:09 PM
A. Thomas from Oklahoma

Great show, guys. Unlike all the other posters, I love the show : ) Keep up the good work and kudos for the Arvo Pärt clip in the HeLa segment!

Jul. 23 2010 07:40 PM
J. Tarbell from New Mexico

This was an amazing show and an especially otherworldly story. I deeply thank you for it. Where can I find the music credits? There was a beautiful piece played that I must listen to again. Thank you kindly!

Jul. 16 2010 11:25 PM
Jacqueline Fore from Henderson, NC

I have just finished reading the book by Rebecca Skloot. I could not put the book down. Also, saw the episode on Law and Order that portrayed a fictionalized account of this event. The book and the TV program were an eye opener. Will make an incredible movie.

Jun. 16 2010 12:22 AM
brandon wolfe

This is not pop science writing--this is science journalism. There was real research here.

I started to think this when you tracked down Lucy's holders and their remarkable story---radiolab is doing something NO ONE ELSE is doing. They are connecting real science to real people's lives. Unbelievably good.

Jun. 04 2010 08:05 PM
Karleigh Freeman

Thank you for sharing this with the world. I cannot imagine the magnitude of pain that Mrs Lacks experienced before she died. Years later, her daughter Debra would carry the burden of her mother's suffering and exploitation.

Mrs Lacks' children should be compensated for their mother's unknowing contribution to science that have made some people very wealthy.

May Debra and her mother rest in peace.

Jun. 01 2010 01:13 PM
derrick bryant lacks family member from new haven,ct

Henrietta Lacks was and still is my forth cousin.I very much don't appreciate that the doctor at the time stole my aunt cell. And didn't give my family any kinda 1 billion dollar donation. To the lacks family. I will get an attorney on this matter. my phone number 1203 903 7469 and i will stay in contact

May. 31 2010 05:50 PM
Kevin Pleasant from New Jersey

Great informative dramatization of the story and journey of Henrietta Pleasant-Lacks. Personally, I am just learning about her story, and intrigued by the possibility that she may be a distant relative. I really enjoyed your professional presentation, it was very enjoyable. Keep up the great work!

May. 30 2010 08:08 PM
J.J. Evans from Norfolk, Va.

Another story on Henrietta Lacks in today's Virginian-Pilot (5/30). Buried for decades in an unmarked grave in Clover, Va., she finally has a headstone. There was a ceremony yesterday:

May. 30 2010 01:01 PM
L. Nguyen

American science has done a lot of terrible things to the African American community. The Lacks family struggled while science profited off of their DNA. Tuskeegee (referenced as the first biochem co. in the show) housed the syphilis experiment and HeLa. The Lacks family had more reason to be suspicious of scientists than was explained on the show.

For me, it's not an argument about who owns what and who should get paid for what. It's an issue of institutional injustices completely disregarding the humanity of entire communities, and many modern-day people's inability to talk about and deal with those injustices in a meaningful way.

May. 29 2010 04:47 AM
J.J. Evans from Norfolk, Va.

I work in the newsroom of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Va. Staff writer Denise Watson Batts did a great story on Mrs. Lacks and her family earlier this month. Here it is:

May. 27 2010 08:26 AM
Irena Schulz from Schererville, IN

This was a magnificent podcast! Much like a beautifully choreographed ballet. And a bittersweet close...Debra's passing. Beautiful work.

May. 25 2010 10:04 AM
Dave from Toronto, Ontario

Mrs. Lacks family should receive some sort of compensation. If a company made money off of my cells without my permission I would sure demand a cut in a hurry.

May. 21 2010 11:33 AM
Tina from harrison city, pa

another mesmorizing story.

poor Deborah. that was really hard on her.

we do have a similar analogy for this- organ donation. i've had loved ones who have received and donated organs & tissue.

and, i can relate to her feelings and wonderings.

May. 18 2010 08:31 AM
Mark Lopez from

This was my first time listening to your show, and I have to tell you I was absolutely captivated. The way the broadcast flowed seamlessly between dialogue, sound effects, and stories made me feel like I had stumbled upon a window into another world. Well done!

May. 07 2010 06:36 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.