Henrietta Lacks will be getting a statue built for her in her hometown of Roanoke, VA.
She was a Black woman who unfortunately died in 1951, aged just 31, from cervical cancer. However, she lives on in her cells, and has contributed to multiple medical breakthroughs. Despite this, the tale of how this all occurred is one that is pitted with injustices.
When Lacks originally showed up at Johns Hopkins Hospital, she was diagnosed and treated for her cancer. One of her treatments included the non-consensual collection of tissue samples. The doctors analyzed these cells and found that they reproduced at a high rate, long after all other cells died outside of their host.
These cells ended up being extremely important to research and became the "HeLa" immortalized cell line.
Lacks' family did not know that her cells we used in such a way – or that they helped create a multibillion dollar industry – until researchers tried to track the family down to use their DNA to map her genes and help with future cell culture contamination. Unfortunately, the family have yet to get compensation for the use of her cells, although a new lawsuit has been filed against the non-consensual use of the cells by Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Even the hospital that first collected the cells thinks that more should have been done to inform the Lacks family.
“Having reviewed our interactions with Henrietta Lacks and with the Lacks family over more than 50 years, we found that Johns Hopkins could have – and should have – done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests. Though the collection and use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in research was an acceptable and legal practice in the 1950s, such a practice would not happen today without the patient’s consent” said Johns Hopkins Medicine on their website.
But, at least there will be a statue that commemorates Lacks, who never knew how many lives she would save through many medical breakthroughs.
The statue will replace a monument to Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, that the city officials voted to remove.
Roanoke Hidden Histories (an initiative based in the Harrison Museum of African American Culture) have raised over $180,000 that will cover the expenses of the statue and a virtual reality documentary of the town’s history. This will help future generations remember the history and legacy of Henrietta Lacks.
“It is a real honor to be here in Roanoke, to humanize my Grandmother. For so long, they called her HeLa cells. Her name is Henrietta Lacks” her grandson Ron Lacks said at the statue sketch unveiling, as reported by WSLS 10 News.
The artist is Bryce Cobbs, who is a Roanoke native, and he revealed the sketch of the statue at a press conference. The statue should be completed in October 2023 and will be located on the renamed Henrietta Lacks Plaza.