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 Helen Lane

(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 Helen Lane
Did you know your coffin's final nail
Is bigger than a blue whale?
And so it will remain
Just as long as cell biologists
Like peering at your private bits

It's a grand humiliation
Showing now across the nation
Mutation on a huge scale
Bigger than a blue whale

Dear Helen Lane
Did you know the bit you left behind
May help to cure its own kind?
So maybe you can claim
A saintly little perch in every church
For contributions to research

Well back in 1953, m'lady had a malady
A cervix abnormality
That led to her fatality
The cells went for a biopsy
That showed up the malignancy
But also a propensity
To multiply so rapidly
That the scientists went on to see
What other uses there could be
For her expansive quality
They shared her around 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 Helen Lane
Did you know your flock of little vultures
Divide and conquer lesser cultures?
But not that you're to blame
Your name before
They diddled with the facts
Was really Henrietta Lacks

Dear Helen Lane
Did you know that part you left to science
Is now a giant among giants?
And on a higher plane
Your omnipresent question
Bids the answer
God's a black woman's cancer

©Mal Webb 2000

Chords:
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#ø 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#ø 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 1953. 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 it particularly lilting, I made it the chorus of my song. which was long finished when I learnt the truth. Rather than changing everything, I decided to let life imitate art and add a verse that exposes the real name as a bit of an afterthought. Whether that was clever or dodgy I'm not sure, but hey, it's done. Arabidopsis and Drosophila are, respectively, a little plant and a little fruit fly. They were 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. Henrietta Lacks' family found out about the whole thing and tried to sue John Hopkins University. But the suit was successfully defended as the university didn't sell the HeLa cells, they just gave them away. I've heard talk of trying to get a sainthood for Henrietta (which I didn't know when I wrote my song...ooh, spooky). Check out http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/0400web/01.html for more about her life.


*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 cuttings from a mutant one several centuries ago...


Helen Lane (with chords).
The six figures are which fret for the strings of a guitar, in order from fattest to thinnest. 0 is open and X means don't play it. When the numbers get over 9, I put in commas to separate them. Simple! Oh and ∆ means major 7th.

Well [Em7 X79787]I propose a [Am7 575555]toast to the [C/D X5X553]mitosist
With the [B7 X24242]mostest
She's a [Em7 X79787]ghost who can [Am7 575555]boast
From coast to [Go7 3X232X]coast in every [G6 3X243X]Hela cell
[C#9 X43444]She's more cultured [D9 X54555]than Chanel
Cartier[Eb9 X65666] or YSL[E9 X76777]
But she's [Am7 5X555X]tired of being [F#ø 2X221X]quite so huge
And [Ab7 4X454X]dizzy from the [F7 1X121X]centrifuge
She's [Em7 010000]quick frozen, colour-fast
Her [Eb9no3 XX1321]prison cell is [D9no3 XX0210]built to last
[G 320033] [Cadd9 X32030]... tricky bit!
[G 320033]Dear Helen Lane[pass X00033-X20033]
[Cadd9 X32030]Did you know your [C pass X32010-X30000]coffin's [C pass X30000-X32010]final nail [Cadd9 X32030]
[G 320033] Is bigger than a [pass X00033-X20033]blue whale? [Cadd9 X32030] etc...
And so it will remain
Just as long as cell biologists
Like peering at your private bits

[G 3XX033]It's a grand humiliation[G X0X033]
[G X3X033] Showing now [G XX0033] across the nation
[Fadd9 1X3213] Mutation on a huge scale[C X32010]
Bigger than a blue whale[G 320033] [Cadd9 X32030]... tricky bit!

Dear Helen Lane
Did you know the bit you left behind
May help to cure its own kind?
So maybe you can claim
A saintly little perch in every church
For contributions to research

Well [Em7 X79787]back in [Am7 575555]1953, m'lady[C/D X5X553] had a [B7 X24242]malady
A [Em7 X79787]cervix abnormality[Am7 575555]
That [Go7 3X232X]led to her [G6 3X243X]fatality etc...
The cells went for a biopsy
That showed up the malignancy
But also a propensity
To multiply so rapidly
That the [D2 X522XX]scientists went [Bb5 X133XX]on to see
What [F#sus4 2X44XX]other uses [D7sus4 X555XX]there could be
For [Eb7sus4 XX112X]her expansive [Bm7 X2X23X]quality
They [Eb/G 3XX34X]shared her around [Eb7b9 X6565X]extensively
To [Em7 X79787]every good [Am7 575555]laboratory
Her [C/D X5X553]fame was spreading [B7 X24242]globally
'Til [Em7 X79787]nowadays she's [Am7 575555]said to be
The [Go7 3X232X]biggest lonely clone there'll ever be
[G 320033] [Cadd9 X32030]... tricky bit... [Bbm6#5 X1X022]

Arabidopsis[Am7 5X555X] and [F#ø 2X221X]drosophila
May [Ab7 4X454X]have advice to [F7 1X121X]offer her
On [Em7 010000]how it's best to keep your cool
When [Eb9no3 XX1321]you've become a research tool
[D XX0212-XX0210-XX0213-XX0212-XX0210]
[Gm9/D XX0335-XX0333-XX0336-XX0335-XX0333-XX0335]
[C∆/D XX0557-XX0555-XX0558-XX0669-XX077,10]

Dear Helen Lane
Did you know your flock of little vultures
Divide and conquer lesser cultures?
But not that you're to blame
Your name before
They diddled with the facts
Was really Henrietta Lacks

Dear Helen Lane
Did you know that part you left to science
Is now a giant among giants?
And on a higher plane
Your omnipresent question
Bids the answer
God's a black woman's cancer...

Ending: Bigger than a blue [Fadd9 1X3213]whale
[C X32010]Bigger than a blue whale[G69 3X223X] [A/G 3X222X]