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. 

Advertisement

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.)

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.