Smithsonian installs portrait of Henrietta Lacks, the 'mother of modern medicine'

Published: Jun. 8, 2018 at 5:19 PM EDT
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A Roanoke, Va. woman whose stolen cells changed modern medicine captures the national spotlight. Chances are you or a loved one benefit from a host of treatments developed from the cells of Henrietta Lacks.

Our Washington Reporter Alana Austin has more on how the nation’s art gallery is preserving the memory of the woman some call the 'mother of modern medicine'.

“She was so young when she passed away, yet she continues to give," said Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Henrietta Lacks - left out of the history books for years - now commands the attention of visitors to the Gallery.

In 1951, she died at just 31 of cervical cancer, but before her passing, doctors removed a tumor and discovered her cells kept replicating.

Scientists didn’t ask permission to use her cells but they eventually helped researchers develop the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization and many other treatments.

“I hope people walk away with a real sense of her story, of a new understanding about the way that people who were deemed powerless in history were experimented on in hospitals," said Moss.

Moss says the gallery is honored to highlight the woman whose legacy only came into focus decades after her death.

In this large-scale, vibrant painting, artist Kadir Nelson depicts Lacks in her Sunday best - radiant and surrounded by geometric patterns - in a nod to her immortal cells.

Museum visitors like Susan Nichols say they’re moved by this body of work.

“She had power, she had presence, she had history," said Nichols.

Lacks’ story raises questions today about medical ethics, privacy and race, but in this space, and in the medical world, her cells and legacy live on.

“She continues to give and that she remains a presence even after her passing," said Moss.

The portrait is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until November 4th.

The portrait is now co-acquired by the Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In addition to that honor, Lacks' life story was featured in a New York Times best-selling book, 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks', by Rebecca Skloot. Her story also gained an international audience with a recent HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey.

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