The statue honours the legendary woman whose cells changed the course of modern medicine.
The University of Bristol has unveiled a life-size bronze statue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black American woman whose human cells were the first ever to survive and multiply outside the body, which was created by local artist Helen Wilson Roe. The piece is the first public sculpture of a Black woman made by a Black woman in the UK and has been installed in the heart of the University of Bristol campus precinct next to Royal Fort House.
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. Henrietta’s cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge or consent, and it was only in 1975 that by chance the family found out about her legacy.
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.
HeLa cells are used in almost every major hospital and science-based university in the world, and 100 years after Henrietta’s birth, they were used as part of Covid-19 research at the University of Bristol. 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.
Jeri Lacks-Whye, Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughter, said: “As the world commemorates 70 years since Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cells changed the world, we also reflect on my grandmother’s untimely passing. It is only fitting that she be memorialised to educate future generations on her legacy and the importance of advancing health equity and social justice for all. The Lacks Family is honoured to begin our HELA100 worldwide tour with the University of Bristol and Helen Wilson Roe for the unveiling of this historic statue.”
The unveiling of the first statue of a Black woman follows the exhibiting of two of Helen’s portraits of Henrietta Lacks and Cllr Cleo Lake, Bristol’s first Black female Lord Mayor. These portraits have been on display in the Wills Memorial Building since October 2020.
Helen Wilson-Roe said: “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, is just fantastic, especially at this time when Bristol is starting to address its past.
“I have been researching about Henrietta Lacks independently for over 20 years. My mission now is to finish painting all 24 portraits of the Lacks family and gift the portraits to the family so that they retain full control of their legacy.”