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Bristol University Has Commissioned The UK’s First Sculpture Of A Black Woman Made By A Black Female Artist

By Alice Lorenzato-Lloyd

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The sculpture will commemorate the legendary woman whose cells changed the course of modern medicine.

The University of Bristol has commissioned local artist Helen Wilson Roe to create a sculpture of Henrietta Lacks, a Black American woman whose human cells were the first ever to survive and multiply outside the body. The piece will be the first public sculpture of a Black woman made by a Black woman in the UK and will be installed on the University of Bristol campus later this year.

Henrietta Lacks was a young mother who died of an unusually aggressive form of cervical cancer. During surgery, a sample of cells was taken from the tumour and was sent to a laboratory where they were found to be the first living human cells ever to survive and multiply outside the human body.

Because Henrietta’s cells were able to multiply indefinitely, they formed the first scientifically defined ‘immortal’ human cell line, opening the door to all kinds of experiments and research on cell behaviour. These cells, which became known as HeLa cells, changed the course of modern medicine, making possible some of the most important medical advances of all time including the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene-mapping, IVF and cloning.

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HeLa cells are used in almost every major hospital and science-based university in the world, and 100 years after Henrietta’s birth, they are being used in Covid-19 research at the University of Bristol. The announcement of the commission coincides with a yearlong celebration to mark the centenary year since Henrietta’s birth, and 2021 also symbolises 70 years of use of HeLa cells.

Artist Helen Wilson Roe said: “To have the University of Bristol commission me as a Black female Bristolian artist to create a life size bronze statue of an iconic Black woman to be placed in the University of Bristol’s grounds, will be history in the making. This is the University offering more than lip service or tokenistic gestures, but actually committing to supporting a Black female artist by sustaining my art and recognising Henrietta Lacks.

“As a child growing up in Bristol there were no statues of Black women that I could identify with so knowing that my children and their grandchildren and great grandchildren will be able to see Henrietta’s statue in Bristol is just fantastic especially at this time when Bristol is starting to address its past.”

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