Ripped From Which Headline? "Immortal"

Slate's Culture Blog
May 19 2010 6:06 PM

Ripped From Which Headline? "Immortal"

We all know that Law & Order rips its stories from the headlines—but which headlines? After each new episode, Brow Beat matches L&O' s plot points to the events that inspired them.

May 17, 2010, "Immortal"

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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These Are Their Stories
Jerome Turner turns up dead in a hospital E.R. When Jerome's son, Jaden, tells the police that a man put a swab in his mouth on the day of the murder, they recognize this as a DNA test. Next, they learn that Jerome was the grandson of Nathan Robinson. Nathan died in 1959, but his cells, known as NaRo, were the first to stay alive in culture. One scientist describes them as "a lab staple, like white mice or petri dishes." The immortal NaRo cells are sold to research centers around the world by Hema Labs, whose founder took the cells from Nathan Robinson without his permission.

The police learn that Hema Labs was offering money in exchange for blood samples from Nathan Robinson's great-grandchildren, such as Jaden. Jerome's cousin Michael didn't want Jerome to participate—he wanted the family to unite and sue Hema Labs for fair compensation, but Jerome accepted Hema Labs' offer, because he needed money for Jaden's medical care. Michael stabbed him in a moment of anger. The lawyers persuade Hema Labs' owner to give $10 million to members of the Robinson family before Michael accepts a plea bargain.

This Is the Real Story
The story of NaRo cells and the travails of Nathan Robinson's descendants is a close parallel to the case of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Doctors took a tissue sample without her knowledge, and cells from her tumor were the first to grow and survive indefinitely in culture. Billions of the cells have since been sold and used in crucial medical experiments. The story of these HeLa cells, as they are known, and of the Lacks family's feelings of betrayal by the medical establishment, is told in Rebecca Skloot's best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks .

Even after 20 seasons of watching Law & Order and a year of chronicling the headlines that inspire the show's story lines , I can't recall an episode where ripped was quite so appropriate. Many of the particulars of the NaRo story line were shockingly close to the true story. For instance, Nathan was buried in an unmarked grave at the Robinson family homestead, while Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave in Clover, Va., where she grew up. One of Nathan Robinson's children lived in a care facility, as did one of Henrietta Lacks' daughters.

Over the years, the medical establishment sometimes claimed that the HeLa cells came from a woman called Helen Larsen or Helen Lane—a practice that robbed Henrietta Lacks of the fame and respect she deserved. It's ironic that her contribution has now been obscured one more time. The fictional prosecutors secured a payment to the fictional Robinson family—perhaps the producers of Law & Order should make a donation to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation . (Skloot is donating a portion of her book's proceeds to the foundation.)