CERVICAL CANCER CLAIMED THE LIFE of Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), an African American woman who died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the young age of 31. She never gave her consent, but in the waning months before her death her cells were harvested and have revolutionized medical science. For more than half a century, university labs and biotech companies have been experimenting with her cells. Lacks’s legacy includes thousands of patents and countless medical advancements and treatments for deadly and debilitating diseases. Meanwhile, her descendants were unaware her cells were still alive making pioneering contributions, and received no compensation for their transformative role.

The story remained largely lost to medical history until Rebecca Skloot wrote a book about it. She published “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in 2010, and last year HBO made a movie about Lacks, starring Oprah Winfrey, who portrayed her daughter. Now the Smithsonian is recognizing her place in American history. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture have jointly acquired a portrait of Lacks by Kadir Nelson.

Los Angeles-based Nelson has made portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela for The New Yorker magazine. His portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first African American to seek a major party nomination for President of the United States, is in the collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Commissioned by HBO, the portrait of Lacks is a gift from the artist and JKBN Group LLC. Nelson titled the work “Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine” and invoked a number of visual elements to convey critical aspects of her narrative. She wears pearls with a traditional frock in fiery red, and holds her Bible close and tight.

“The painting is a juxtaposition of faith and science. Henrietta being a woman of faith, came from a very religious family,” Nelson told Vibe. “…I wanted to not only share her being a religious person, but also being consumed by science. The background is an ancient symbol of immortality and cell divisions. It’s a repeated circular pattern that forms a hexagon and its an ancient symbol found on the walls of Egypt. It’s called the ‘Flower of Life,’ and it connects to the flowers on her dress which is pretty much in the same vain.”

IN MARCH, THE NEW YORK TIMES acknowledged that since 1851 its obituaries have overwhelmingly focused on the lives of white men. To compensate for this imbalance, it launched Overlooked, a project designed to foreground the stories of countless pivotal figures it failed to recognize over generations. Lacks is among those who received a belated obituary. It reads in part:

    “Henrietta Lacks was the great-great-granddaughter of a slave and was herself a tobacco farmer whose family remained poor, with some members not having health insurance despite her cells leading to a medical revolution. Her endlessly renewable cells were harvested from her cervix just months before she died and without compensation or consent, before being bought, sold and shipped many times over. There are thousands of patents involving her cells. Millions of dollars in profits have been made.

    “Lacks left behind five young children and an unparalleled medical legacy when she died on Oct. 4, 1951… Though she was forgotten at the time, part of her remained alive, at the forefront of science. While a cure for cancer remains elusive, the cell line named for her, HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), has been at the core of treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease as well as the polio vaccine, the cancer drug tamoxifen, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.”

The portrait of Lacks will be displayed on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery beginning May 15 and will remain on view through Nov. 4.

“It is fitting that Henrietta Lacks be honored at two Smithsonian museums, as each approaches American history from unique and complementary perspectives,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, in a statement. “Lacks’ story presents moral and philosophical questions around issues of consent, racial inequalities, the role of women, medical research and privacy laws, providing rich platforms for historical understanding and public dialogue.” CT


TOP IMAGE: KADIR NELSON, “Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine,” 2017 (oil on linen). | Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group LLC


Kadir Nelson has illustrated and authored numerous children’s books. His most recent is “Blue Sky White Stars.” The story of Henrietta Lacks was lost to history until Rebecca Skloot researched her life and wrote “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book about her unthinkable experience and enduring legacy.


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