This week, the Smithsonian unveiled a portrait of Henrietta Lacks, the black tobacco farmer who ended up changing the world. Her cells have allowed for advances in cancer treatment, AIDS research, cloning, stem-cell studies and so much more. They traveled to the moon to test the effects of zero gravity, and scientists have sold and purchased them by the billions.
The oil-on-linen work, “Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine” will hang inside one of the main entrances of the National Portrait Gallery through November.
Lacks died in 1951 at the age of 31 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her treatment, a surgeon cut cells from her cervix. Those cells became the first human cell line to reproduce outside the body. They came to be known as HeLa cells and became invaluable to medical researchers.
Little was known about Lacks’ impact on modern medicine outside the medical community until author Rebecca Skloot wrote a book about it in 2010.