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Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine

Immortalized in medicine and canvas

Born into a family of impoverished tobacco farmers, Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951) had an immense global impact on medicine, although her controversial story was ignored, hidden, falsified, and left untold for decades. A surgeon removed a tissue sample from a cancerous tumor in Lacks's cervix without requesting permission or even informing Lacks—a common but not universal practice at the time—and delivered it to the laboratory of Dr. George Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. Lack's cells, which thrived and multiplied in the lab, have been used in research ever since, aiding more than 17,000 patents in treatments for conditions ranging from polio and Parkinson’s disease to AIDS, hemophilia, and infertility. Lacks’s story is part of a centuries-long history of medical experimentation on African Americans, enslaved and free, without their consent or knowledge. Only with the 2010 publication of Rebecca Skloot’s revelatory book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, did Lacks’s story come to widespread public attention. 

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine

Object Details

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National Portrait Gallery Collection
Date
2017
Object number
NPG.2018.9
Exhibition Label
Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951), who was from Roanoke, Virginia, died of cervical cancer at age thirty-one. Upon her death, doctors discovered that cells from her body lived long lives and reproduced indefinitely in petri dishes. These “immortal” HeLa cells have since contributed to over 10,000 medical patents relating to polio, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions. Considering the history of medical testing on African Americans without their consent, the fate of Lacks’s cells raises questions about ethics, privacy, and race. By addressing these issues forthrightly in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), author Rebecca Skloot prompted Oprah Winfrey and HBO to make a film on the subject. Award-winning artist, author, and illustrator Kadir Nelson uses visual elements to convey Lacks’s legacy. The wallpaper features the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality. The pattern of her dress recalls cellular structures, and the garment’s missing buttons signal the absence of those cells that were taken from her body, without permission.
Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951), natural de Roanoke, Virginia, murió de cáncer cervical a los 31 años. Entonces los médicos descubrieron que las células de su cuerpo eran longevas y se reproducían indefinidamente en las placas de cultivo. Estas células “inmortales”, llamadas HeLa, han contribuido a más de 10,000 patentes médicas relacionadas con la polio, el SIDA, el mal de Parkinson y otras condiciones. Considerando el historial de pruebas médicas en sujetos afroamericanos sin su consentimiento, el destino de las células de Lacks plantea cuestionamientos de ética, privacidad y raza. Estos aspectos fueron abordados por Rebecca Skloot en La vida inmortal de Henrietta Lacks (2010), libro que inspiró a Oprah Winfrey y HBO a realizar una película. El premiado artista, autor e ilustrador Kadir Nelson utiliza elementos visuales para comunicar el legado de Lacks. El empapelado lleva la “flor de la vida”, símbolo de inmortalidad. El estampado del vestido recuerda las estructuras celulares y los botones que le faltan señalan la ausencia de las células tomadas de su cuerpo, sin su permiso.
Provenance
The artist; gift to NPG 2018
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History & Culture; gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC
Artist
Kadir Nelson, born 1974
Sitter
Henrietta Lacks, 1920 - 1951
Topic
Costume\Jewelry
Printed Material\Book
Decorative
Henrietta Lacks: Female
Portrait
Medium
Oil on linen
Dimensions
Frame: 201.9 × 176.5 × 12.7 cm (79 1/2 × 69 1/2 × 5")
Sight: 151.1 × 125.7 cm (59 1/2 × 49 1/2")
Data Source
National Portrait Gallery
Restrictions & Rights
Usage conditions apply
Copyright
© 2017 Kadir Nelson
Type
Painting
GUID
http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/sm4efc8c5d7-5769-43a4-bae0-2b5db0e2385f
Record ID
npg_NPG.2018.9

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine

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