When Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in 1951, she and their own families had no idea her tragic occur would change the world.
Then, most cell samples taken from patients quickly degenerated. The samples taken from Lacks, however, proved “surprisingly robust, ” allowing them to be replicated in labs countless of times. Perhaps just as importantly, those unstoppable “HeLa” cells permitted scientists to continue research, but not “re going to have to” experiment on other people.
But Lacks, the granddaughter of slaves, never knew her cells were being harvested because physicians didn’t tell her . Get her consent to use her cells for exams beyond Lacks’ own medical treatment apparently never passed to those who employed them for their later research, and subsequent gains, over the years. Her household also didn’t know about her historic contributions to science for more than two decades until a relative stumbled upon the open secret after the brother-in-law of a family friend spotted the connection to a National Cancer Institute study.
That discovery, and the attention that followed, helped glisten a spotlight on medical consent as well as the often forgotten groundbreaking contributions of black girls.
Today, it seems almost imaginable that someone would take your medical history, let alone your actual cells, without permission. That they were taken from a woman of color only compounded a massive ethical hole in medical science that forced researchers to not only think about the potential of test subjects, but also the ethics of how that vital material is procured.
We may never know precisely why doctors didn’t feel obligated to tell Lacks or their own families about her contributions. Whatever those reasons may be, even if it was just a general absence of consideration, sadly aligned with a history of not recognise the huge role of black women in American history.
But since, there has been a sustained great efforts to right this historical incorrect and give Lacks’ the credit she deserves.
Her family first became aware of Lack’s ever-growing legacy back in the 1970 ‘s, but there has been a steady effort to tell her incredibly important tale to the world. There’s a best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, ” and a 2017 HBO film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey.
And now, the National Portrait Gallery honored her with a beautiful life-sized portrait.
We’re proud to share this Kadir Nelson portrait of Henrietta Lacks with our friends at @NMAAHC. The striking posthumous portrait was inspired by two surviving photographs that are now in the arrests of her family. Commissioned by HBO on the occasion of the HBO movie premiere of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, Nelson wrote of the portrait, “I elected to paint a prideful and glowing portrait of Henrietta Lacks, who is often referred to as,’ The Mother of Modern Medicine, ’ visually juxtaposing arts and science. She stands with her beautifully manicured hands intersected, encompassing her womb( the birthplace of the immortal cell line) while cradling her beloved Bible( a emblem of her strong religion ). Her deep red dress is covered with a vibrant floral pattern that remembers images of cell structure and division.” Other symbolism includes her bright yellow hat, which functions as a halo, her pearl as a emblem of the cancer that took their own lives, and the repeated hexagonal wallpaper pattern, a design containing the “Flower of Life, ” an ancient emblem of afterlife and exponential growth. The buttons missing from her dress reference the cells that were taken from her body without her permission #myNPG
“This is amazing! ” Lacks’ granddaughter told at the portrait’s unveiling . “Soon as you walk through the doors, there she is! ”
The portrait by artist Kadir Nelson will be displayed at both the National Portrait Gallery and The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which many are saying is a fitting tribute to both her contributions to science, and the style science and American culture have so often benefited from women of coloring, often without consent or proper honors.
The painting itself is profoundly embedded with entailing including the cellular design that framed the background of the portrait, and the pearl necklace that’s reportedly a reference scientists made to the cancer destroying her cells.
“It will spark a conversation, ” National Portrait Gallery painting and statue curator Dorothy Moss said, “about people who have made a significant impact on science yet have been left out of history.”
Scientists and doctors have constructed immense medical advancements thanks to Lacks’ contributions. Now, the next frontier for all of us is in elevating the many black girls, like Lacks, who are serving humanity in incredible ways.
No one can change how Lacks and so many others like her were taken for granted in the past, but honoring her monumental legacy is a big step toward moving us all into a brighter tomorrow.
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