Henrietta Lacks (HeLa)
Henrietta Lacks (HeLa)
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
- Created by
- Kadir Nelson, American, born 1974
- Subject of
- Henrietta Lacks, American, 1920 - 1951
- "Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31. During an examination, cells were taken from her body without her knowledge or consent by a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and were subsequently used to produce the world’s first immortal cell line, called HeLa. Henrietta’s cells were paramount to some of the most important advances and research in modern medicine, including the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and in-vitro fertilization. Henrietta’s unique cells continue to be used extensively for medical research and development to this day.
- 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 innocently. 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 the four dime-sized buttons on her dress 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 the Madonna), while pearls (a symbol of the aggressive cancer that took her life) hang from her neck. 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 rare and incredibly durable cells."
- -Kadir Nelson, 2017.
- Oil painting of Henrietta Lacks by Kadir Nelson. Lacks, smiling, is depicted standing in the center of the image. She is facing forward with her hands clasped in front of her body, holding a black book with gold-colored text [HOLY BIBLE]. Lacks is wearing a red dress with a white flower pattern and small belt. The dress has central buttons, with two (2) missing. There is a flower accessory with three (3) pearls in the center above the buttons. Lacks is wearing a wedding ring and a pearl necklaces and earrings. She has a cream and tan hat, the circular brim of which acts like a halo behind her head. Lacks is standing in front of a cream wall with a blue geometric "Flower of Life" motif. The work is signed in the lower right.
- Credit Line
- 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
- Object number
- Restrictions & Rights
- © 2017, Kadir Nelson
- oil paintings
- oil on linen
- H x W (Painting): 59 1/2 × 49 1/2 in. (151.1 × 125.7 cm)
- H x W x D (Frame): 79 1/2 × 69 1/2 × 5 in. (201.9 × 176.5 × 12.7 cm)
- Visual Arts
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- African American
- Record ID
- Usage of Metadata (Object Detail Text)
- Usage conditions apply
- GUID (Link to Original Record)