Statue of ‘mother’ of modern medicine unveiled in Bristol
Three generations of Henrietta Lacks’ family travelled from the US for the unveiling of the bronze statue of the ‘mother’ of modern medicine, which has gone on display at the University of Bristol.
The artwork of Henrietta Lacks is the first public sculpture of a Black woman made by a Black woman in the UK.
The life-size bronze statue of a Black American woman whose cancer cells were used to change the course of modern medicine was sculpted by the Bristol artist Helen Wilson-Roe, and was unveiled yesterday (Monday).
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.
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, IVF treatment and more recently for Covid-19 research, 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.
The statue’s unveiling marked the 70th anniversary of her death.
Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughter, Jeri Lacks-Whye, said: “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.”
Artist Helen Wilson-Roe added: “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.”
The statue, commissioned by the University of Bristol, was unveiled outside Royal Fort House in the campus grounds by Henrietta Lacks’ family.
Professor Jeremy Tavare, dean of the faculty of life sciences at the University of Bristol, said: “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 past 70 years.”