Statue of black ‘mother’ of modern medicine to be unveiled

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

A statue of a black woman whose cells led to crucial medical advances is to be unveiled at a university.

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

It is to be unveiled at the University of Bristol in a ceremony later.

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

Lacks, a young mother born in the US in 1920, died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951 but a sample of her cells survived and multiplied.

The discovery led to the polio vaccine, gene mapping and IVF treatment among others and resulted in her being named the “mother” of modern medicine.

Lacks’ granddaughter, Jeri Lacks, 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.”

Artist Helen Wilson-Roe, who was commissioned to create the statue, 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.

“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 in Bristol is just fantastic, especially at this time when Bristol is starting to address its past.”

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

Portraits Unveiling Event, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol

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.

These cells changed the course of modern medicine, making possible key medical advances including the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene-mapping, IVF and cloning.

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.

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