Bristol University commissions sculpture of Henrietta Lacks on International Women’s Day

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By Eve Bentley-Hussey, Deputy News Editor

Henrietta Lacks was a Black American woman whose human cells were the first ever to survive and multiply outside the body.

The University of Bristol has commissioned local artist Helen Wilson Roe to create a sculpture of Henrietta Lacks.

It follows the exhibiting of two of Helen’s portraits of Henrietta Lacks and Cllr Cleo Lake, Bristol’s first Black female Lord Mayor, which have been on display in the Wills Memorial Building since October last year.

Helen in her studio at work on the portrait | Karen Brett

Henrietta Lacks was  a young mother  who  died of cervical cancer. During surgery, a sample of cells was taken from the tumour and 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, known as HeLa cells, formed the first scientifically defined ‘immortal’ human cell line, opening the door to all kinds of experiments and research on cell behaviour.

Henrietta's cells have made possible some of the most important medical advances of all time including the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene-mapping, IVF and cloning. They are also currently being used in COVID-19 research  at the University of Bristol.

Helen Wilson Roe at the unveiling of her portrait of Henrietta Lacks – currently on display outside the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building | Bhagesh Sachania Photography

The unveiling of the sculpture will be accompanied by an exhibition in October of portraits by Helen Wilson-Roe featuring Henrietta Lacks and her family called ‘A Brush with Immortality.’

Artist Helen Wilson Roe said: ‘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.’

2021 marks the centenary year since Henrietta's birth and 70 years of use of HeLa cells.

Helen Wilson-Roe is working in collaboration with the Lacks family.

Jeri Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ Granddaughter, said: ‘As the world celebrates Henrietta Lacks’ centennial, my family eagerly anticipates the unveiling of this tribute to Henrietta Lacks the woman - and her phenomenal HeLa cells. It is incredible to see our Hennie rightfully honoured for her worldwide impact.’

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Professor Jeremy Tavaré, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Bristol, said: ‘The unveiling of the sculpture will coincide with an educational plan that will mark the start of the Faculty of Life Sciences working on the decolonisation of our curriculum which will include an acknowledgement of the invaluable contributions Black people have made to science over the years.’

A widening participation education project and a Henrietta Lacks Masters Scholarship are also being planned.

Featured Image: Bhagesh Sachania Photography


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