Family’s delight as statue of medical pioneer Henrietta Lacks is unveiled

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The family of Henrietta Lacks celebrate the unveiling of her statue at the University of Bristol (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
The family of Henrietta Lacks celebrate the unveiling of her statue at the University of Bristol (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

A statue of a black woman whose cells led to crucial medical advances has been publicly unveiled for the first time – on the 70th anniversary of her death.

The artwork of Henrietta Lacks is the first public sculpture of a black woman made by a black woman in the UK.

It was unveiled at the University of Bristol by members of Mrs Lacks’s family who had travelled from the US for the occasion.

Lacks, a young mother born in 1920 in the US, died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951 and samples of her cells were collected by doctors without her or her family’s knowledge.

The statue of Henrietta Lacks is the first statue in the UK of a black woman to have been created by a black woman (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
The statue of Henrietta Lacks is the first statue in the UK of a black woman to have been created by a black woman (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

It was during surgery that a sample of cells was taken from the tumour in Louisiana-born Ms Lacks’ body before she died in Baltimore aged 31.

It 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.

Research on the cells led to the polio vaccine, gene mapping and IVF treatment among other advances and resulted in her being named the “mother” of modern medicine.

They became known as HeLa cells, taking the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names. HeLa cells are used in almost every major hospital and science-based university in the world.

Bristol-born artist Helen Wilson-Roe with her statue of Henrietta Lacks (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Bristol-born artist Helen Wilson-Roe with her statue of Henrietta Lacks (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

It was only in 1975 that by chance the family found out about her legacy.

Mrs Lacks’ son, Lawrence, was joined by her grandson, Alan Wilks and his wife, Pam; granddaughter, Jeri Lacks-Whye; and great-granddaughters Victoria Baptiste and Veronica Robinson for the unveiling.

Mr Lacks, who was 17 when his mother died, said: “I want to thank everybody for coming and making me so proud.

“My whole family have come together today to make everything work and not to fight against each other.

“It is something I am very proud of and I am very happy to see this happen. I thought at the beginning it was impossible but now I found out nothing is impossible with my family.

“They do everything they set out to do.”

Great-granddaughter Victoria Baptiste said: “It feels like we are coming full circle from losing her the way we did, to show how many great things are happening through that tragedy.”

Veronica Robinson said: “My great-grandmother’s legacy doesn’t just live on through the statue, it lives on through every one of her relatives.

“The significance of having a statue for the first time of an African-American woman by a black woman from Bristol, after a statue of Edward Colston, a former slave trader, came down, and this statue to go up shows how things have come full circle for our family.”

Artist Helen Wilson-Roe, who created the statue, 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.”

Artist Helen Wilson Roe works on the sculpture of Henrietta Lacks (John Roe/University of Bristol/PA)
Artist Helen Wilson Roe works on the sculpture of Henrietta Lacks (John Roe/University of Bristol/PA)

Professor Jeremy Tavare, dean of the faculty of life sciences at the University of Bristol, said: “Many of our biomedical science researchers whose work uses human cells have used Henrietta’s cells in their research or with collaborators, including myself. We all owe Henrietta an enormous debt of gratitude.

“I am absolutely delighted to be able to host this beautiful statue of Henrietta on our campus so we can visually honour her contribution to important discoveries we have made in Bristol over the last 70 years.

“I feel intensely proud that her family have been so supportive in our doing so. Her statue will do so much to raise her profile with our students and also with children in our local communities.”

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