Immortalized in Medicine and on Canvas

The controversial, lifesaving legacy of Henrietta Lacks

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine (2017) by Kadir NelsonOriginal Source: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Portrait Gallery, Gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC

A poor Black woman from rural Virginia, Henrietta Lacks saved countless lives—without ever knowing it. She had an immense global impact on medicine, although her controversial story was ignored, hidden, falsified, and left untold for decades.

Henrietta Lacks (c. 1945) by UnknownOriginal Source: Flickr

Born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, VA in 1920, Henrietta Lacks descended from enslaved individuals in the Jim Crow era. After her mother died in 1924, Lacks’s grandfather raised her on the family farm.

She had her first child at 14, and a second before marrying their father, David “Day” Lacks, in 1940. During World War II, they moved to this home near Baltimore, so Day could work at the United States Steel Sparrows Point plant. Note the historic marker next to the center door.

In March 1951, after the birth of her fifth child, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Despite receiving standard radium treatments, she died at 31.

HeLa-I Cells (2007-10-01) by National Institutes of HealthOriginal Source: Wikipedia

While Lacks was alive, a surgeon removed part of her tumor during a biopsy without requesting permission or even informing Lacks, and delivered the cells to Johns Hopkins Hospital laboratory.

Lacks’s cells survived and thrived, duplicating at an astonishing rate. Named “HeLa” for the first two letters of her name, the cells were the first “immortal” cell line available for medical research.

Lee Weigt and DNA sequencer (2011) by Ken RahaimOriginal Source: National Museum of Natural History

Soon, they were distributed to laboratories around the world. They have been used in medical research ever since, contributing to more than 17,000 patents in treatments for conditions ranging from polio and Parkinson’s disease to AIDS, hemophilia, and infertility.

Henrietta Lacks (c. 1945) by UnknownOriginal Source: Flickr

Lacks’s family were not aware of the cell line’s existence until two decades later. Lacks’s medical records and her family’s genetic information were made public without the family’s permission. 

Considering the history of medical testing on African Americans without their consent, the issue of racial inequities complicates the story of Henrietta Lacks and medical ethics.

Kadir Nelson (2017-11-04) by Larry D. MooreOriginal Source: Wikipedia

In 2017, award-winning artist, author and illustrator Kadir Nelson donated his vibrant portrait of Henrietta Lacks to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture.  He uses visual elements to convey Lacks’ legacy.

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine (2017) by Kadir NelsonOriginal Source: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Portrait Gallery, Gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC

Nelson explains the symbolism embedded in his painting: “I elected to paint a prideful and glowing portrait of Henrietta Lacks who is often referred to as, ‘The Mother of Modern Medicine,’ visually juxtaposing faith and science."

"Lacks smiles pleasantly."

"She stands with her beautifully manicured hands crossed, covering her womb (the birthplace of the immortal cell line), while cradling her beloved Bible (a symbol of her strong faith)."

"Her deep-red dress is covered with a vibrant floral pattern that recalls images of cell structure and division, while two of its four dime-sized buttons are noticeably missing (a reference to the cells that were taken from her body without her knowledge)."

"Her bright yellow hat functions as a halo (recalling Renaissance paintings of saints like the Virgin Mary)…"

"The decorative wallpaper behind her forms a repeated hexagonal pattern, a design containing the ‘flower of life,’ an ancient symbol of immortality and exponential growth, two distinctive qualities of her unique and incredibly durable cells...”

"…while pearls (a symbol of the aggressive cancer that took her life) hang from her neck."

One of a very few formal paintings of her, Kadir Nelson’s portrait honors Henrietta Lacks’s life and legacy.  

Credits: Story

Collection of Smithsonian National PortraitGallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC.
© 2017 Kadir Nelson

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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