Henrietta Lacks
(for dad)

Well, I propose a toast to the mitosist with the mostest
She’s a ghost who can boast from coast to coast in every HeLa cell
She’s more cultured than Chanel, Cartier or YSL
But she’s tired of being quite so huge and dizzy from the centrifuge
She’s quick frozen, colour-fast
Her prison cell is built to last
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know your coffin’s final nail
Is bigger than a blue whale?
A zillion artefacts
Grown as long as cell biologists keep peering at your private bits
’Cos it’s a grand humiliation
Showing now across the nation
Mutation on a huge scale
Bigger than a blue whale ...
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know that bit you left behind may help to cure its own kind?
So many saintly acts
May claim a little perch in every church for contributions to research
Well, back in '51, you see*, m’lady had a malady
A cervix abnormality that led to her fatality
Her cells went for a biopsy that showed up the malignancy
But also a propensity to multiply so rapidly
The scientists went on to see what other uses there could be for her expansive quality
They shared her ’round extensively to every good laboratory
Her fame was spreading globally
’Til nowadays she’s said to be the biggest lonely clone there’ll ever be
Arabidopsis and Drosophila may have advice to offer her
On how it’s best to keep your cool when you’ve become a research tool
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know your flock of little vultures divide and conquer lesser cultures?
Not much one to relax
It parties even left out on the shelf
Immortally beside itself
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know that part you left to science is now a giant among giants?
And for a grand climax
Your omnipresent question bids the answer
God’s a black woman’s cancer …

Mal Webb 2015

This is a rewrite of my song, Helen Lane

Intro: l Em7 Am7 I C/D B7 I Em7 Am7 I Go7 G6 I
          l C#9 D9 I Eb9 E9 I Am7 F# I Ab7 F7 I Em7  I Eb9no3 D9no3 I
Verse1: II: G  I Cadd9  :II x4  G G/A I G/C G/D I Fadd9  I Cadd9  I
Chorus: II: G  I Cadd9  :II x4
Verse2: II: G  I Cadd9  :II x4  G G/A I G/C G/D I Fadd9  I Cadd9  I
Chorus: II: G  I Cadd9  :II x4
Bridge: II: Em7 Am7 I C/D B7 I Em7 Am7 I Go7 G6 :II
             l D2 Bb5 I F#sus4 D7sus4 I Eb7sus4 Bm7 I Eb/G G6 Eb+b9 Eb69 I
             I Em7 Am7 I C/D B7 I Em7 Am7 I Go7  I
Solo: II: G  I Cadd9  :II x lots... I G   I Cadd9 Bbm6#5 I
Link: l Am7 F# I Ab7 F7 I Em7  I Eb9no3  I D  I Gm9/D  I C∆/D  I D    I
Verse2: II: G  I Cadd9  :II x4  G G/A I G/C G/D I Fadd9  I Cadd9  I
Chorus: II: G  I Cadd9  :II x8  Fadd9  I C   I G69 A/G I

My dad, a geneticist, told me this story. It's all true, although there are some folks who hotly debate the Blue Whale claim: It makes for a good song though! It contains lots of little "in" jokes: I apologise to those who aren't cell biologists.

Henrietta Lacks was a African-American woman from Baltimore (USA) who died of cervical cancer in 1951*. The biopsy of cells from her cancer was found to be extraordinarily fast dividing, so the scientists at John Hopkins University began using her cells for cancer and genetic research, giving them the name HeLa, derived from Henrietta's names. The HeLa cells were then shared freely amongst other like minded researchers, but a false name, Helen Lane, was made up to protect anonymity and/or cover tracks. Being cancerous, the cells are immortal and HeLa cells are still routinely used in research, so much so that some chap at the journal Nature calculated that if you gathered all the HeLa cells from all the laboratories around the world, it would be bigger than a blue whale, making it the biggest biomass in the world**. HeLa cells are so active that if they are being used somewhat carelessly in a laboratory, other cell cultures may be taken over by them, like a weed.
Back when dad told me about HeLa cells, he was unaware that the name Helen Lane was false. Finding the name particularly lilting, I made it the chorus of my song, Helen Lane, which was long finished when I learnt the truth. I went about rewriting the song, but so many people were attached to the song as it was, I decided it was better to just add an addendum verse and I recorded it on my first solo. That decision has always bothered me and so in 2016, I decided to do the proper rewrite as "Henrietta Lacks" and record it in the up tempo disco-esque style I originally wrote it in (the way it was performed with my band, the Oxo Cubans, before I made it folky guitar style version).

Arabidopsis and Drosophila are, respectively, a little plant and a little fruit fly. They were each the subjects of my sister Mary's and my dad's PHD theses (respectively). My dad, Graham Webb, has had a long, fruitful and wide ranging career as a geneticist and it was indeed a honour to write this song with his help. Still, when I sent what I considered the finished song for his perusal, he posted it back to me with corrections in red pen! One thing he had corrected was the line "She's quick frozen, colour-fast", which he changed to "She can be frozen fast". When I rang to protest the change, he asked: "But what's the colour fast bit?" "Well", I replied, "you know how you stain the slides before you put them under the microscope?" And that's when dad and I really bonded. Prior to that, I think he never quite had a handle on what I did as a songwriter. Onya dad! Love, Mal

P.S. Although Henrietta Lacks' husband David had given permission for research samples to be taken, the Lacks family remained anaware of the success of HeLa cells until 1975, when the connection was made in a passing conversation. Around the same time, John Hopkins University were in the process of contacting the family about whether they could help in furthering their research. Check out for more about her life. And for even more, there's Rebecca Skloot's excellent book .

*The lyrics, as they appear on my CD, have this line as, "back in 1953..." which is two years after she died. Oh dear! I only noticed it a few months after releasing my album Not Nor Mal (in October 2016) containing this song! I've changed the line to "Well, back in '51, you see...", dropped it into the master for the Bandcamp version:

**the world's biggest animal biomass maybe: There's a fungus somewhere in the US that's said to be bigger and when you consider nearly all the edible banana plants in the world are suckers from a mutant one several centuries ago...