Henrietta Lacks' Lasting Impact Detailed In New Portrait

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 7:43 pm

When Henrietta Lacks was dying of cancer in 1951, her cells were harvested without her knowledge. They became crucial to scientific research and her story became a best-seller. Since then, Lacks has become one of the most powerful symbols for informed consent in the history of science.

On Monday, when the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., honored Lacks by installing a painting of her just inside one of its main entrances, three of Lacks' grandchildren were there.

"This is amazing!" marveled Kimberly Lacks. "Soon as you walk through the doors, there she is!"

Kimberly Lacks, Jeri Lacks-Whye and Alfred Carter Lacks saw this portrait for the first time at its unveiling. They never knew their grandmother, as she died before they were born.

"A beautiful woman," Kimberly observed quietly, studying the life-size portrait.

"Just like they said she was in life," Jeri added. "Happy, outgoing, giving — and she's still giving."

Literally tons of Lacks' cells have been grown in labs over the past 67 years. They helped develop the AIDS cocktail, the polio vaccine and treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia.

Henrietta Lacks and her family never benefited from the thousands of patents and billions of dollars her cells helped generate.

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.

"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," he said.

The artist, Kadir Nelson, painted Lacks standing in front of a wall covered with blue and purple hexagons.

"A pattern that almost looks like wallpaper, but it's actually representative of her cells," said Dorothy Moss, a National Portrait Gallery curator.

In the painting, Lacks clasps a Bible in front of the part of her body from which her cells were taken. Her face is haloed like a saint's by the brim of a light sun hat.

The doctor who cut her open wrote later that the tumors looked like pearls studding the inside of her body; she wears pearls in the portrait.

Her granddaughter Kimberly has her own interpretation.

"Pearls seem like its classy, just a test of time — and that's what she was, she was classy," Kimberly said. "I just think it's amazing. A great representation of our grandmother — our 'she-ro.' "

Pretzer said this portrait should be a reminder "that history can be remade, re-remembered."

Along with the painting, Lacks has been re-remembered in all kinds of ways in recent years: She received a posthumous doctorate in public service from a college in Maryland. A high school for students interested in medicine now bears her name. So does a minor planet whirling in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Henrietta Lacks was dying of cancer in 1951, her cells were harvested without her knowledge. They became crucial to scientific research, and her story eventually became a best-selling book. Lacks has become one of the most powerful symbols for informed consent in the history of science. This morning the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, D.C., honored Henrietta Lacks by installing a painting of her. It's located just inside one of the main entrances. NPR's Neda Ulaby was there along with three of Lacks' grandchildren.

KIMBERLY LACKS: This is amazing. As soon as you walk through the doors...

JERI LACKS-WHYE: Yes, right there.

LACKS: ...There she is (laughter).

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Kimberly Lacks and Jeri Lacks Whyte are seeing this portrait for the first time. They never knew their grandmother. She died before they were born.

LACKS: A beautiful woman.

WHYE: Just like they said she was in life - happy, outgoing, just giving. And she's still giving.

ULABY: Tons of Lacks' cells have been grown in labs over the past 67 years. They helped develop the AIDS cocktail, the polio vaccine and treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia. Henrietta Lacks and her family never benefited from the thousands of patents and billions of dollars her cells helped generate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Everyone's saying Henrietta Lacks donated them cells. She didn't donate nothing. They took them and didn't ask.

ULABY: That's from an HBO movie based on the book "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. HBO commissioned the painting. Now it's co-owned by the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Bill Pretzer is a senior curator there. He says the story of Lacks is also one of racial history, bioethics and medical history.

BILL PRETZER: Doctors had been trying for half a century to grow cells in laboratory circumstances that would reproduce.

ULABY: Lacks' cells did. What's become known as her immortal line is represented, says Pretzer, by a pattern in her cheerful red dress that resembles cell structures when you look at it closely. And...

PRETZER: 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.

ULABY: The artist, Kadir Nelson, painted Lacks standing in front of a wall covered with blue and purple hexagons, says National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss.

DOROTHY MOSS: A pattern that almost looks like wallpaper, but it's actually representative of her cells.

ULABY: In the painting, Henrietta Lacks clasps a Bible in front of the part of her body from which her cells were removed. Her face is haloed like a saint's by the brim of a light sun hat. The doctor who cut her open wrote later that the tumors made it look as though pearls studded the inside of her body. Lacks wears pearls in the painting. Her granddaughter Kimberly has her own interpretation.

LACKS: Pearls seem like it's classy, just a test of time. And that's that she was. She was classy. And I just think it's amazing, a great representation of our grandmother, our shero (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Time now for selfies. But it's hard given family emotions.

LACKS: My hand's shaking (laughter).

ULABY: This portrait should be a reminder, says curator Bill Pretzer...

PRETZER: That history can be remade, can be re-remembered.

ULABY: Henrietta Lacks is being re-remembered in all kinds of ways. She received a posthumous doctorate in public service from a college in Maryland. A high school for students interested in medicine now bears her name. So does a minor planet whirling in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we give Jeri Lacks-Whye's last name as Whyte.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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