Henrietta Lacks Gets Immortalized in a Portrait: It’s Now on Display at the National Portrait Gallery

In my child­hood, I heard sto­ries about Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks’ mirac­u­lous cells. I heard these sto­ries because she hap­pened to have been my grandmother’s cousin. But this was just oral lore, I thought at first, leg­endary and implau­si­ble. Cells don’t just keep grow­ing indef­i­nite­ly. Noth­ing is immor­tal. That’s a safe assump­tion in most every oth­er case, but mil­lions of peo­ple now know what only a rel­a­tive­ly self-con­tained com­mu­ni­ty of researchers, doc­tors, biol­o­gy stu­dents, and, even­tu­al­ly, the Lacks fam­i­ly once did: Henrietta’s cer­vi­cal can­cer cells con­tin­ued to grow and mul­ti­ply after her death in 1951. They may, indeed, do so for­ev­er.

The once anony­mous cell line, called HeLa, has pro­vid­ed researchers world­wide with invalu­able med­ical data. Hen­ri­et­ta her­self went unrec­og­nized and unre­mem­bered until fair­ly recent­ly. That all changed after Rebec­ca Skloot’s book The Immor­tal Life of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks, based on an ear­li­er series of arti­cles, appeared in 2010 to great acclaim. Since the pub­li­ca­tion of Skloot’s best­seller, the sto­ry of Hen­ri­et­ta and the Lacks fam­i­ly has fur­ther achieved renown in a 2017 film ver­sion star­ring Oprah Win­frey.

Suf­fice it say, see­ing Hen­ri­et­ta arrive on the pop cul­tur­al stage has been a strange expe­ri­ence. (One made even weird­er by oth­er media moments, like indie band Yeasay­er and for­mer Dead Kennedys singer Jel­lo Biafra releas­ing songs about her and her cells.) The injus­tices of Henrietta’s sto­ry are now well-known. She was poor and received sub­stan­dard med­ical treat­ment. Her cells were har­vest­ed with­out her knowl­edge, and after her death, no one noti­fied the fam­i­ly about the world­wide use of her cells for bio­med­ical research. That is, until doc­tors did research on her chil­dren in the 70s, pub­lish­ing fam­i­ly med­ical records with­out con­sent and gath­er­ing more data because the HeLa cells had con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed oth­er cell lines.

She has “become one of the most pow­er­ful sym­bols for informed con­sent in the his­to­ry of sci­ence,” Nela Ula­by writes at NPR. She is also a sym­bol, says Bill Pret­zer, senior cura­tor at the Nation­al Muse­um of African Amer­i­can His­to­ry and Cul­ture (NMAAHC), “that his­to­ry can be remade, re-remem­bered.” To that end, Hen­ri­et­ta has been immor­tal­ized as a whole human being, not just the source of extra­or­di­nar­i­ly immor­tal cells. Her por­trait, by African-Amer­i­can artist Kadir Nel­son, now hangs in the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of both the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure and her world-his­tor­i­cal bio­log­i­cal lega­cy.

Draw­ing on the pho­to­graph that adorns the cov­er of Skloot’s book, the por­trait shows her “just like they said she was in life,” says her grand­daugh­ter Jeri Lacks-Whye, “hap­py, out­go­ing, giv­ing,” and styl­ish­ly dressed. The two miss­ing but­tons on her dress rep­re­sent the cells tak­en from her body, and the pat­tern behind her, which “almost looks like wall­pa­per,” says Nation­al Por­trait Gallery cura­tor Dorothy Moss, is “actu­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of her cells.” Oth­er trib­utes, notes Ula­by, include a “high school for stu­dents inter­est­ed in med­i­cine” and “a minor plan­et whirling in the aster­oid belt between Mars and Jupiter.” The cells have also gen­er­at­ed bil­lions of dol­lars in prof­it.

In life, she could nev­er have imag­ined this strange kind of fame and for­tune. The HeLa cells were instru­men­tal in the devel­op­ment of the polio vac­cine and research in cloning, gene map­ping, and in vit­ro fer­til­iza­tion. They have trav­eled into space and around the world hun­dreds of times. The sto­ry of the per­son they came from, says Skloot in a 2010 inter­view, reminds us that “there are human beings behind every bio­log­i­cal sam­ple used in the lab­o­ra­to­ry… but they’re usu­al­ly left out of the equa­tion.” Mak­ing those lives an essen­tial part of the con­ver­sa­tion in med­ical research can help keep that research eth­i­cal­ly hon­est, equi­table, and, one hopes, based in serv­ing human needs over cor­po­rate greed.

The por­trait will remain at the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery until Novem­ber 4th, after which it will return to the NMAAHC.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Biol­o­gy Cours­es 

Down­load 100,000+ Images From The His­to­ry of Med­i­cine, All Free Cour­tesy of The Well­come Library

African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry: Mod­ern Free­dom Strug­gle (A Free Course from Stan­ford) 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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