In 1951, at the age of 31, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. Unbeknown to her family, some cells had been taken from Lack’s body. The cells grew in a lab and were referred to as the “HeLa” line of cells, which became one of the most important cell lines in medical research. The HeLa cells were cells that could live forever. They did not die after a set number of cell divisions and the cells could be used for conducting a multitude of medical experiments. The HeLa cells were instrumental in the development of treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia.
Although Lack’s family was never compensated for the use of her cells, on Monday (May 14th) The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., honored Lacks by placing a portrait of her inside one of its main entrances and three of Lacks’ grandchildren were there to celebrate the occasion.
HBO commissioned this painting after the company made a movie based on the award-winning nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The canvas is co-owned by the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Bill Pretzer, a senior curator at the African-American museum, says the story of Lacks is also one of racial history, bioethics and medical history.
“Doctors had been trying for half a century to grow cells in laboratory circumstances that would reproduce,” Pretzer said.
Lacks’ cells did. What’s become known as her “immortal line” is represented in the painting, said Pretzer, by a pattern in her cheerful red dress that resembles cell structures when you look at it closely.
The Henrietta Lacks painting will be available for viewing until November 2018.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premiered on HBO on April 22,2017. The drama television film was directed by George C. Wolfe and starred Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta Lacks. The film derived from the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and documents the story of Henrietta Lacks, who was diagnosed with cervical caner in the 1950s. Her cells went on to change the course of cancer treatment.