“Mother of Modern Medicine” Henrietta Lacks Honored In Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

May 18, 2018  |  

The Mother of Modern Medicine by Kadir Nelson, oil on linen, 2017.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group LLC.

A portrait of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who contributed to modern medicine in numerous ways, has been honored with a beautiful portrait now being shown at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

Co-owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the portrait was created by Kadir Nelson, and it made its premiere on Tuesday.

If you’re not familiar with her story, then let’s take a little bit of a ride. The non-fiction New York Times bestselling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” introduced us to Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old woman who died of cervical cancer. But when she was being treated for the disease, her cells were harvested by cell biologist George Otto Grey without her consent (something that was not needed at that time). And Grey realized that he had hit the scientific jackpot because her cells could grow in a laboratory and reproduce.

So, when Lacks died in 1951, neither she nor her family were informed about what her cells would go on to do for modern medicine. Referred to as HeLA cells, they have helped develop the AIDS cocktail, the polio vaccine and treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia for over 67 years and counting.

So, yeah, Lacks deserves this honor and more. HBO also made a film based on the book with the same title, and after they completed the project, they commissioned this portrait of Lacks, according to NPR.

The controversy with Lacks’ story is that the family has never financially benefited from any of the patents or groundbreaking developments their relative’s immortal cells have contributed to. So, while this portrait is great, I am of the mind that the family needs to be fairly compensated.

But there’s a time and place for everything. When Kimberly Lacks, Jeri Lacks-Whye and Alfred Carter Lacks, the grandchildren of Henrietta saw the portrait, they were just happy to see their grandmother revered on canvas.

“This is amazing!” Kimberly Lacks said. “Soon as you walk through the doors, there she is!”

“Just like they said she was in life,” Jeri added. “Happy, outgoing, giving — and she’s still giving.”

Renese spends her early mornings writing, her days securing insurance for TV shows, and her in-betweens blogging about the silliness and seriousness of life on her blog. Follow Renese on Twitter: @reneseford

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