Henrietta Lacks’ cells are responsible for several life-saving medical advancements, but as they were taken for scientific use without her permission, it has taken over 60 years for her to get proper credit.
The National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History hope to make some progress towards giving Lacks the credit she is due. The museums unveiled a portrait of the former tobacco farmer on Monday, reports NPR.
Lacks succumbed to cancer in 1951, and her cells were harvested without her consent. Her cells were the first human cells to reproduce outside of a body. They are responsible for invitro fertilization, the polio vaccine, AIDS research and a host of other medical improvements. The cells even traveled to the moon, and have earned the scientific and medical communities billions of dollars.
Despite this substantial contribution, the Lacks family has never been compensated. Lacks story was not widely known until author Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published in 2010.
HBO later produced a documentary by the same name, starring Oprah Winfrey. The company also commissioned the portrait.
The oil-on-linen painting, created by Kadir Nelson, features several subtle Easter eggs to convey the journey of Lacks’ cells.
“There are a couple of buttons that are missing on Henrietta Lacks’ dress, and those were explicitly left off by the artist as a symbol of the cells that had been removed from her body,” said Bill Pretzer, senior curator at the African American museum.
The wall behind Lacks is also a symbol, and features “a pattern that almost looks like wallpaper, but it’s actually representative of her cells,” added Dorothy Moss, curator at The National Portrait Gallery.
Additionally, Lacks clutches a bible in front of her pelvis, the former home of her stolen cells. The pearls around her neck represent a doctor's description of the tumors that plagued her body.
If you will be in D.C. in the next few months, you can see the work for yourself: the painting will displayed in one of the main entrances of The National Portrait Gallery until November.