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Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine
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Kadir Nelson, born 1974
Henrietta Lacks, 1920 - 1951
Oil on linen
Frame: 201.9 × 176.5 × 12.7 cm (79 1/2 × 69 1/2 × 5")
Sight: 151.1 × 125.7 cm (59 1/2 × 49 1/2")
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History & Culture; gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC
Restrictions & Rights
Usage conditions apply
© 2017 Kadir Nelson
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Exhibition Label
Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951), who was from Roanoke, Virginia, died of cervical cancer at age thirty-one. Upon her death, doctors discovered that cells from her body lived long lives and reproduced indefinitely in petri dishes. These “immortal” HeLa cells have since contributed to over 10,000 medical patents relating to polio, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions. Considering the history of medical testing on African Americans without their consent, the fate of Lacks’s cells raises questions about ethics, privacy, and race. By addressing these issues forthrightly in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), author Rebecca Skloot prompted Oprah Winfrey and HBO to make a film on the subject. Award-winning artist, author, and illustrator Kadir Nelson uses visual elements to convey Lacks’s legacy. The wallpaper features the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality. The pattern of her dress recalls cellular structures, and the garment’s missing buttons signal the absence of those cells that were taken from her body, without permission.
Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951), natural de Roanoke, Virginia, murió de cáncer cervical a los 31 años. Entonces los médicos descubrieron que las células de su cuerpo eran longevas y se reproducían indefinidamente en las placas de cultivo. Estas células “inmortales”, llamadas HeLa, han contribuido a más de 10,000 patentes médicas relacionadas con la polio, el SIDA, el mal de Parkinson y otras condiciones. Considerando el historial de pruebas médicas en sujetos afroamericanos sin su consentimiento, el destino de las células de Lacks plantea cuestionamientos de ética, privacidad y raza. Estos aspectos fueron abordados por Rebecca Skloot en La vida inmortal de Henrietta Lacks (2010), libro que inspiró a Oprah Winfrey y HBO a realizar una película. El premiado artista, autor e ilustrador Kadir Nelson utiliza elementos visuales para comunicar el legado de Lacks. El empapelado lleva la “flor de la vida”, símbolo de inmortalidad. El estampado del vestido recuerda las estructuras celulares y los botones que le faltan señalan la ausencia de las células tomadas de su cuerpo, sin su permiso.
The artist; gift to NPG 2018
Data Source
National Portrait Gallery
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National Portrait Gallery Collection