A statue of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used in crucial medical research without her consent, will replace a memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Roanoke, Virginia.
Lacks, a black mother of five being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, underwent radium treatment in 1951 when tissue from her cancer was removed and sent to another doctor’s laboratory without her consent. Cancer researcher George Gey used Lack’s tissues to cultivate a cell line that is still used in medical research today. The hospital says on its website that “collecting and using Henrietta Lacks’ cells in research was an acceptable and legal practice in the 1950s, but such practice would not occur today without the patient’s consent.”
Lacks died of her cancer later that year at the age of 31.
According to the city’s Facebook page, a statue dedicated to Lacks and her contribution to science will be erected in Roanoke, Lacks’ hometown, in the fall of 2023. The plaza previously known as Lee Plaza was also renamed Lacks Plaza in her honor.
The city initiated court proceedings in June 2020 to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, erected in 1960. In July of that year, the statue was knocked over and found broken in two, according to CNN affiliate WDBJ.
In a December 19 press conference, city officials unveiled a preliminary sketch for the statue and celebrated Lacks’ life.
“In the past we’ve memorialized a lot of the men with statues who separated us,” Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney who has represented Lacks’ estate, said at the news conference. “Here in Roanoke, Virginia, we will have a statue of a black woman that brings us all together.”
Trish White-Boyd, the city’s Deputy Mayor, said the Roanoke City Council voted unanimously to rename the plaza.
“We want to honor and celebrate them,” White-Boyd said of Lacks.
The city exceeded its goal of raising $160,000 for the statue, she added.
The line of cells made from Lacks cells, called HeLa cells, allowed scientists to experiment and develop life-saving drugs, including the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. They have also helped advance cancer and AIDS research.
Ron Lacks, Henrietta’s grandson, said at the conference: “It was an honor to come here”. He commended Roanoke for actually working with the Lacks family and estate to design the statue.
And Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s only surviving child, said his mother’s statue would make him the “happiest person alive”.
Artist Bryce Cobbs made a sketch of Lacks, which will serve as inspiration for the statue. Creating the sketch was “a humbling experience,” Cobbs said at the press conference. “Just being involved in something like this that has so much historical impact is a hugely humbling moment. I couldn’t imagine being surrounded by more supportive people.”
Larry Bechtel, the sculptor who will create the sculpture, called the project a “big deal” at the conference. “I’ve had a number of assignments, but this one is unique,” he said.
Outside of the medical community, little was known about Lacks’ influence on modern medicine until author Rebecca Skloot wrote about her life in her 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Since then, activists and institutions have worked to posthumously recognize Lacks’ non-consensual contributions and raise awareness of Black women’s often-unknown contributions to science. In 2018, the Smithsonian unveiled a portrait of Lacks at the National Portrait Gallery. And in 2021, the World Health Organization honored her with an award.
“By honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO recognizes the importance of recognizing past scientific injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement at the time.