Henrietta Lacks transformed the landscape of medicine; advancing cancer research and serving as the blueprint for the development of life-saving cures. Her enduring legacy will be memorialized through the creation of a statue in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, CNN reported.
Lacks’ contributions to medical research were pivotal, however, her story illustrates racial injustices that have been historically interwoven into the healthcare system. Prior to Lacks’ fifth pregnancy, a lump was discovered on her cervix. In 1951, months after giving birth, doctors found a cancerous cervical tumor and she began receiving treatment at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. While undergoing radium therapy sessions, surgeons extracted tissue samples from her tumor without her consent or knowledge and used them for cancer research that was being led by George Gey. Lacks’cells—called HeLa—lasted and multiplied, however, her health declined and she passed away that same year.
The HeLa cells led to the creation of treatments for illnesses like leukemia, polio and Parkinson’s disease. They’ve saved lives and continue to be utilized for medical framework. Her story has also sparked crucial conversations about consent and justice within healthcare.
The statue—which will rise this fall—will replace a sculpture of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The outdoor space that her monument will live in will be renamed Lacks Plaza.
Artist Bryce Cobbs drew the vision for the statue and sculptor Larry Bechtel will bring it to life. “Just being involved with something like this, that has so much historical impact, is a huge humbling moment,” Cobbs shared in a statement, according to the news outlet. “I couldn’t imagine being surrounded by more supportive people.”
Plans for the monument come five years after Johns Hopkins University named a campus building after Henrietta Lacks, and a portrait honoring the trailblazer was added to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.