Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cancer cells led to medical breakthroughs but were taken without her consent, will be honored in her hometown of Roanoke with a life-size bronze statue that will be mounted in a plaza once named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
According to The New York Times, the statue will be unveiled next year. Over $183,000 was raised by Roanoke Hidden Histories to fund the project. The organization’s goal is to “surface the hidden histories of the African American experience in Roanoke,” its website states.
On Monday, Bryce Cobbs, a local artist, shared an initial drawing of Lacks during a news conference to share details of the statue. The black-and-white drawing shows Lacks in a blazer and a skirt reaching her knees. Her arms are also folded. The statue’s design will be based on the drawing.
“Hopefully, if everything goes right, we will have an unveiling of this splendid sculpture next October,” the sculptor, Larry Bechtel, said.
Ron Lacks, whose grandmother is Lacks, said the commemorative statue was long overdue. “This means a lot to my family,” he said, adding that he was eager to see “the sculpture that will honor her forever in this beautiful city of Roanoke.”
Upon completion, the statue will be mounted at the Henrietta Lacks Plaza. It will also be placed at a spot where a monument of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was previously erected, The New York Times reported. The Confederate general’s monument was removed in the summer of 2020 after it was damaged. Plans to give the plaza a new name were also initiated after the statue was removed from the location.
“Being a part of history in this way, working with this group of people to bring this to life, is something that I’ll never forget,” Cobbs said about Lacks’ statue.
On January 29, 1951, Lacks felt abdominal discomfort in her womb and sought treatment at John Hopkins hospital. Suffering a hemorrhage, she was tested for the sexually transmitted infection, syphilis. The results returned negative.
Her doctor, Howard W. Jones, biopsied the mass on Lacks’ cervix. It was determined that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma. Lacks was treated using radium tube inserts. She was to come back to the hospital for X-ray follow-up treatments. Unbeknown to Lacks and without her consent, samples were taken from her cervix. The samples were given to George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher and doctor at John Hopkins. One sample was non-cancerous while the other was cancerous.
The cells extracted from Lacks’ cervix later became known as the HeLa immortal cell line; a widely used cell line. The HeLa line is commonly used in scientific research. What is also remarkable about HeLa is that the cells can be used time and time again. Even if the cells are no longer “alive,” a fresh batch can be taken from the original culture of cells.
In 1952, a vaccination for Polio was developed using the HeLa cells. In 1953, the cells were the first to be successfully cloned. In addition, the cells have been used in gene mapping and further research for various illnesses. There are currently 11,000 patents held for the HeLa cells.
Lacks died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31.