Nearly a century after her birth, Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose name became internationally synonymous with cancer research via her “immortal” HeLa cells, will be immortalized in bronze in Virginia next year.
Lacks, whose cells were unethically taken from her without her permission after her death in 1951 and used for decades without her consent, will have a life-sized statue erected in her honor in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. The statue will replace a monument to racist slaver and Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
“This means a lot to my family,” Ron Lacks, Lacks’ grandson, said during Monday’s announcement ceremony. “This historical moment, occasion, has been a long time coming,” said Ron Lacks, whose father, Lawrence Lacks, is Henrietta’s oldest and only living child.
The New York Times reports that the $183,000 raised for Lacks’ statue came from Roanoke Hidden Histories, a seven-person committee-led organization devoted to “surface the hidden histories of the African American experience in Roanoke” in public spaces.
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Lacks’ statue will be created based on a life-sized drawing of Lacks by artist Bryce Cobbs. It will be sculpted by Larry Bechtel and is set to be unveiled in October 2023, ABC News reports.
"The fact that I'm involved in this project means the world," Cobbs said at Monday’s press conference. "I'm humbled to be a part of history in this way and just to be trusted with the task of making sure that I just captured Mrs. Henrietta Lacks the best way I could."
Lacks received treatment for cervical cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland—one of the few medical facilities that treated Black patients at the time.
A gynecologist treating her removed some of her cells from a tumor in her cervix without her consent or permission and sent them to a lab looking for cells that could quickly and continually reproduce. Lacks died at the age of 31, within months of receiving treatment. But scientists learned that her cells, later dubbed HeLa cells, were, in fact, “immortal.” They became the first human cells to be successfully cloned, The Guardian reports.
“I want scientists to acknowledge that HeLa cells came from an African American woman who was flesh and blood, who had a family and who had a story,” her granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye told Nature.
Lacks’ cells led to advancements in 75,000 studies, The New York Times reports, as well as treatments for influenza, leukemia, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, polio, chemotherapy treatments, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. “They were taken in a bad way, but they are doing good for the world,” Lacks’ grandson Alfred Lacks Carter said.
Famed civil rights lawyer Ben Crump is leading a current lawsuit filed by the Lacks family against the biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific, which used and sold the HeLa cells without the Lacks family’s permission. Crump says the statue honors Lacks and her immense contribution to science, even if it has been unintentional.
“When you consider issues of genetic justice, reproductive rights, and stem cell research, there are a lot of historical figures who we like to suggest that their contributions changed the world," Crump said on Monday. "Well, in the case of Henrietta Lacks, we have objective evidence. If I was in the court of law, I would say we have empirical evidence that Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells literally changed the world."
The World Health Organization honored Lacks in 2021, and her family was presented with the Director General Award.
“Henrietta’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” Victoria Baptiste, Lacks’ great-granddaughter, said during the ceremony.
As for Robert E. Lee, his statue in Roanoke was removed in the summer of 2020 along with at least 230 Confederate symbols across the nation after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and subsequent protests and marches. May his replacement continue to live forever.