With the permission of the Lacks Family, the Bristol artist - Helen Wilson-Roe, in partnership with the University of Bristol and, as a result of public demand, is launching an art and science collaborative project “Henrietta Lacks - A Brush with Immortality” crowdfunding campaign on International Women’s Day 2021, in order to fully realise a project that celebrates a significant Black women’s life and legacy.
We hope that you will join us in helping to make it happen.
Henrietta Lacks "She will Outlive us all"
Oil on canvas. By Helen Wilson-Roe. © Painting and copyright property of the Lacks Family.
If you’re not in the science or medical field you may not have heard about Henrietta Lacks. We want this to change!
We want to start by helping the people of Bristol and the U.K. to learn about Henrietta’s life and legacy. We want Henrietta to be remembered always.
Henrietta Lacks was a devoted mother of five. Her family describe her as a fun, vivacious and loving woman, with her own sense of style. She worked as a tobacco farmer in Virginia, USA.
Tragically, Henrietta died of cervical cancer at the age of thirty-one, on 4th October, 1951. A hospital doctor took a piece of her tumour without obtaining her, or her family’s consent. This was commonplace at this time. Whereas all previous human cells died within a few days, making it impossible to perform a range of experiments on the samples, Henrietta’s cells were different. Her cells became the first immortal human cells ever to be grown in culture. The cells became known as the “HeLa Immortal Cell Line”. These cells have been used extensively in medical research since that time.
Her cells have been responsible for some of the most important medical advances of all time, such as the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, AIDs research, IVF, SARS Co-V-2 (the virus that results in COVID-19) and so much more.
Henrietta’s cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity.
Henrietta’s cells have become the most widely used cell line in the world, yet many people don’t know about the woman behind the cells.
Magnetic Nanoparticle HeLa Cells.
Oil on Canvas. By Helen Wilson-Roe.© Helen Wilson-Roe
Effects of magnetic field gradient and nanoparticle loading on cell response. An array is shown of tiled cropped images of cells subject to increasing nanoparticle dose and magnetic field gradient. Cells were stained for actin (green), nano particles (blue) and DNA (cyan).
Henrietta was born to Eliza and Johnny Pleasant in August 1920.
On her fathers side, she was descended from enslaved people who were imprisoned on a tobacco plantation. While on her mother’s side she came from a white enslaver and a Black former enslaved individual who remained on a tobacco plantation to work as a share cropper following emancipation.
After Henrietta’s mother died in 1924, Henrietta was sent to Clover, Virginia, to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks.
Henrietta married her cousin, David “Day” Lacks and eventually the couple moved to Halifax County, Maryland with their two children, where they had three more children. When her last child was born she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Because Henrietta was Black she didn’t have access to most mainstream medical care. She sought treatment at the John Hopkins Hospital, that was racially segregated and was the only hospital in the area that treated Black people.
A doctor at John Hopkins Hospital took a piece of Henrietta’s tumour without telling her or obtaining her consent. It was customary for samples to be taken without consent at this time.
Since then, over 50 million tons of Henrietta’s cells have been produced and used in over 60,000 scientific studies (New York Times 05.2010). This was all without her consent and for many years, without her family’s knowledge. The Lacks family remain proud of the contribution Henrietta’s cells have made.
Throughout this, Henrietta Lacks and her family deserved better. We cannot change what happened but we can help to preserve and protect her legacy.
Henrietta Lacks' pixelated face made up of many members of the Lacks family who were photographed in Baltimore during Helen's visit to meet the Lacks family in 2013. © Helen Wilson-Roe
For many years, Henrietta's family were unaware of the use and important contribution HeLa cells made to science. Henrietta remains, to many, an unknown contributor to worldwide research. We want this to change. 2021 marks 70 years of the HeLa cell use and the announcement of this project falls in the year long centenary celebration the Lacks family are marking since Henrietta's birth.
We want people to learn about Henrietta, her children and her grandchildren. Henrietta was always more than the cells that were taken from her and we want to celebrate that.
We aim to tell the story of Henrietta though the Lacks family. We want to highlight the legacy of Henrietta, to bring to the fore the hidden figure and educate future generations of scientists about the impact Henrietta's cells continue to make to humankind. In collaboration, the Lacks family, Helen Wilson-Roe and the University of Bristol, seek to highlight the contribution Black people have made, and continue to make, to medical science and academia; something which has not been sufficiently addressed previously.
Ultimately we wish to acknowledge the crucial role Henrietta’s cells have made to biomedical research and development. We want to honour Henrietta and her family by helping to bring her important story and legacy into mainstream history and learning for all to access.
Helen Wilson Roe is a Black Bristol based artist who is a passionate advocate of inclusion and social justice. She has been independently researching about Henrietta Lacks and working with the Lacks family since 1997. Helen has worked constantly to bring Henrietta’s story to the foreground.
In partnership with the Lacks family and the University of Bristol, Helen is looking for funding to achieve the next exciting part for this project, which will include:
A life size bronze statue of Henrietta Lacks, to be placed in the grounds of the University of Bristol for October 2021. This sculpture will see Henrietta Lacks celebrated in Bristol and in the U.K. - a university, a city and a country that has undoubtedly benefited from her life and her death. This statue will be the first life size statue of a black woman created by a black woman on public display in the U.K.
A fully funded Masters scholarship for a year to support a Black undergraduate student, which will be named “The Bristol Henrietta Lacks Scholarship”, to begin to address the loss of Black students from the academic pipeline. If we reach our crowdfunding target then our stretch target for this campaign seeks to extend this beyond one year and we will pushing for a commitment to this on going support for Black students beyond 2021 at The University of Bristol.
An Educational programme for the U.K. National Curriculum, to include all key stages. We believe that we all must address ethical issues within science and to tell the truth about scientific history. Henrietta’s is one such truth that should be more widely known and taught within mainstream science curriculums. The University of Bristol will run a series of events that will engage with young people to visit the university, see the sculpture and then see Henrietta’s cells in laboratories and learn about the important contribution they have made to medical science.
In addition to the statue and educational programme, Helen will also be painting twenty four portraits of Henrietta Lacks and members of the Lacks family (to be gifted in ownership and copyright to the family). Finally she will be making a film about it all. The paintings and film will be made in kind by Helen at this point. We hope we can find further funding to help her with these elements of the project. A temporary multi media exhibition for October 2021 will introduce audiences to Henrietta and her family.
Campaign poster by Niamh (aged 9)
Richard Stone writes that “We estimate that around 89% of wealth used to found the University of Bristol depended on the labour of enslaved people. Notably, enslaved labour can be linked to all three of the names represented in the University crest - Wills, Fry and Colston.
We have a responsibility to be acknowledge this and to be forthright and creative in responding to our history today” (Richard Stone 2018).”
We see this project as just one of the creative responses, as described by Stone, to begin new dialogues within the University of Bristol and the city of Bristol, and beyond.
Often, the history of enslavement is understood as something that happened in the USA. We wish to centre Bristol within that history, and therefore our connection with Henrietta .
It is estimated that Britain transported more than three million African people across the Atlantic and 500,000 on Bristol ships alone.
The first enslaved people were brought from Africa to the British Colony of Virginia in 1619. Bristol’s own connection with Virginia - and therefore Henrietta- is undeniable. The fact that Henrietta lived in the same wooden cabin as her enslaved ancestors tells us a lot about how the official emancipation from enslavement (in 1863) had not massively improved the material conditions of Black people. And such inequalities persist into the present. We want people to recognise Britain’s and Bristol’s role within this history.
In more modern times Bristol had led the way, on several occasions, to tackle equality. The Bristol Bus Boycott and the toppling of Colston are just two examples of this.
In June of 2020, the eyes of the world looked to Bristol where, in a BLM demonstration, the statue of Edward Colston was toppled by citizens of the city. This was a defining moment in history, and it is the duty of Bristol to keep the momentum of positive movement towards equality going by the continuation of actions, not just words.
We want the sculpture of Henrietta to also add a richness to the rest of the public statues in the U.K., which are mostly of white men made by white men. Where are the beautiful sculptural representations of the Black female form? This will be the first public statue of a Black woman created by a Black woman in the U.K!
We also hope that a strong visual presence in the form of a permanent sculpture of Henrietta will set in motion wider conversations around important issues such as: bio medical ethics, health equality, social justice and intersectionality.
This project has only been possible because of the trust, generosity and openness of members of the Lacks family, and the close relationship and trust between Helen Wilson-Roe and the Lacks family.
Helen Wilson Roe in her studio at Mivart Street Studios, Bristol 2014
Painting on left: Dorian Lacks - Henrietta's Great Grandson Oil on canvas. © Painting and copyright property of the Lacks Family.
Painting on right: Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman - Henrietta's Son. Oil on canvas.© Painting and copyright property of the Lacks Family.
Photograph by Karen Brett
This project is born from the artist, Helen Wilson-Roe, a renowned Black Bristolian artist, who is a passionate advocate of inclusion and social justice. Helen's work explores theme of racism, exploitation, genocide, the slave trade and representations of the Black female form.
Talking about her work, Helen says "I address social and cultural issues that are of particular concern to disenfranchised and culturally diverse communities whose voices and stories are rarely told in mainstream art spaces, although they have universal significance". Helen's sense of community stretches globally. Her art work on the 1994 Rwandan genocide was exhibited internationally and the exhibition catalogue is still used today as a teaching aid on the subject of genocide within some schools in African countries and the U.K. Helen is well respected in her local community and within the wider art community. In 2019/20, Helen was named as one of 19 Black Bristol Women who had made a difference.
Helen has been independently researching Henrietta Lacks and working with her family since 1997, and making art inspired by their powerful story. She has worked constantly to bring Henrietta's story to the foreground.
Helen has worked with many of Henrietta’s surviving family members to create art that may benefit the family. For example, Helen painted a copy of a portrait of Henrietta that the family no longer own the copyright to, and then Helen gifted both the ownership and copyright of all the Lacks family portraits she has also painted, to the family.
Helen Wilson Roe in her studio at Mivart Street Studios, Bristol 2013 working on the painting of Henrietta Lacks.
The Lacks family no longer own copyright of photographs that exist of Henrietta. Helen decided she could give the family back an image of Henrietta by painting her. Jeri Lacks Whye, Henrietta’s Granddaughter on the Henrietta Lacks painting “Thanks again, Helen. We finally have a very special piece that we, as Henrietta’s descendants, can say we own (copyright). I’m so excited - overfilled with joy and proud. Words cannot describe how I felt when I saw the wonderful portrait you have painted of Henrietta Lacks”
Helen pictured in front of her painting of Henrietta Lacks in the Lord Mayor’s office of Bristol in 2018. Image by James Beck.
In 2018, the Lord Mayor at that time - Cleo Lake, famously removed two portraits from the Lord Mayor’s office in Bristol’s City Hall.
One was a portrait of Edward Colston and the other a portrait of Robert Craggs-Nugent, who both had significant roles within the slave trade.
Cleo Lake replaced the Gainsborough portrait of Nugent (who was key in turning the transatlantic slave trade to one that took place on an industrial scale) with Helen’s portrait of Henrietta Lacks (owned and loaned by the Lacks family). Cleo Lake’s decision to replace these paintings was and still is celebrated as a wonderfully positive public action, and one that honours Henrietta Lacks especially.
Helen Wilson Roe and Cleo Lake, portrait launch, University of Bristol 2020.
Henrietta Lacks "She will Outlive us all" Oil on canvas. By Helen Wilson-Roe. © Painting and copyright property of the Lacks Family. Oil on canvas painting “Cleo Lake-The first but not the last” by Helen Wilson Roe. © Copyright Helen Wilson-Roe, property of Joan Field-Thorne. Image by Bhagesh Sachania.
We have some amazing support for this project. Our supporters share our desire to acknowledge the importance of recognising Henrietta’s story and legacy globally for future generations.
Please hear from some of people that welcome this project by watching our short film or by reading the written statements below.
We asked our supporters two questions:
"What does this project mean to you?" and "Why Bristol?"
Jeri Lacks Whye, Henrietta Lacks Granddaughter “Thanks again,Helen. We will finally have a very special piece that we, as Henrietta's descendants, can say we own (copyright). I'm so excited - overfilled with joy and proud. Words can't describe how I felt when I saw the wonderful portrait you have painted of Henrietta Lacks."
Professor Jeremy Tavaré, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Bristol “We feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to work with Helen Wilson-Roe and Henrietta Lacks’ family in celebrating Henrietta’s life and her incredible contribution to biomedical science discovery. Being such a special year, marking 100 years since her birth, we commit to ensuring that Henrietta’s story becomes a vivid part of the life of generations of students and researchers in schools and universities for at least the next 100 years and beyond.”
Lara Lalemi, Postgraduate student, University of Bristol, and CEO of Creative Tuition.
“This project means bringing the hidden figure on which biological science was built upon are closer to home. It means the acknowledgement of the invaluable contribution from an individual who was not asked for consent but can now be rightly celebrated. As a woman of colour in a predominantly non-Black university, exposure of these important figures is imperative to showcasing our true history, diversifying our campus and fighting for better inclusion of people from all backgrounds."
Eddie Chambers, Professor - Dept of Art and Art History, The University of Austin at Texas.
“Helen’s practice touches several bases, though painting is her first love, and remains the cornerstone of her art making. Helen takes as her central focus a concern for people, and we observe, within her work, multiple manifestations of community. Not just community in the sense of people living in her street, or in her neighbourhood, but perhaps a more profound sense of community - those who inhabit the same planet as she does........(on Henrietta Lacks - ) Encountering this incredible story led Helen to undertake a remarkable set of paintings, which, in her own characteristic manner, restored to Lacks a humanity, a respect, a recognition of the worth of her life, that had not routinely been extended to her during her short time on earth, a time made all the more poignant by the harvesting of cells from her body, which subsequently then led to major developments in medical research and its application.”
Joan Field-Thorne and Micaela Briscoe "This project signifies the starting block on which black artists can champion the legacy of Black contributions to the scientific community in a public sphere. This is a part of history that has been exploited and manipulated to suit the goals of everyone except for Henrietta Lacks and her family. It is finally time to put the record straight for the eyes of humanity."
Kai Drysdale “Personally, as a Black student myself, this project would bring to attention the significance of Black education in the community. However, this project would mean a sense of justice would be brought to Henrietta’s family, as they would be compensated (albeit not to a large enough extent) for the influence that her cells have had on scientific research.”
Doctor Kyra Neubauer and Doctor Steve Neubauer "As doctors, HeLa cells have helped revolutionise medical treatments which have benefited so many patients we treat. On a more personal level, we feel that art at its best is political and helps start conversations that make people think about injustices and how to address them. We passionately want to see a fairer just society and this project helps to show the contribution that black people make. We hope that the people who see this statue will be encouraged to want to work towards a just and fair future for all."
Andrea Drysdale “It’s important that the truth regarding Black history is never lost. It needs to be a continual conversation. My son and his future children and grandchildren should always know what we’ve achieved. Black students from a financially disadvantaged background should be able to access the same opportunities as everyone else and at the moment they don’t. This project is ground-breaking and lays the foundation for many other academically able Black students to pursue their dreams.”
Amber Roguski and Laura Mediavilla Santos, on behalf of The Inclusive Research Collective, University of Bristol "This work is so important as it centres around Henrietta as a person, commemorating and educating people about her rich life as well as scientific legacy. At the same time it illustrates the racial inequities that are embedded in research and healthcare systems- issues that academic institutions must bring to light and fight against. The University of Bristol’s public support of this project recognises and respects the stories of individuals and their contributions to science, and commits the university to supporting the next generation of Black scholars."
Emma Belcher, Undergraduate Biochemistry Student, University of Bristol "It’s so easy to use HeLa cells in the lab and allow yourself to separate them from the story of Henrietta Lacks in your head. I hope that this project will challenge that cognitive dissonance and raise awareness about the injustice that this Black woman endured in the name of science."
Doctor Kyra Neubauer and Doctor Steve Neubauer "We moved to Bristol many years ago and were surprised, despite the cities long and distressing history of slavery, how little reminder there was of the lives of the black people who brought the city its great wealth. Slavery exploited and dehumanised people, but until Colston’s statue was toppled there seemed to be no public recognition of the cities past. The city needs to recognise the violent injustices that were committed against the people who were enslaved and address the dehumanisation that still stops people recognising the worth of black people today. This project will be a start to recognise the important contribution that black people make to society as a whole and have and continue to make to science. Such recognition is vital to ensuring that black peoples are truly valued and that they can gain real equality in our society."
Lara Lalemi, Postgraduate student, University of Bristol and CEO, Creative Tuition. “Bristol is a multi cultural city with world leading research universities and facilities. Bristol is also a changing university, recently setting up avenues and platforms to celebrate those who have contributed to academia from all walks of life. Henrietta Lacks in no different. The Henrietta Lacks statue will present an opportunity to acknowledge and learn something about Black and biology history that is instrumental to research today. In its simplest form showing this statue in Bristol, a previous slave port city, undermines the narrative that Black people lack in contributions to science and academia, we are its very biological foundations. It becomes empowering, a statement of resistance and emboldening of the diverse future to come."
Joan Field-Thorne and Micaela Briscoe "Why not Bristol?, being that it is one of the primary beneficiaries from the exploitation of Black People for scientific research, particularly the financial gain through dehumanisation of Black people from the times of slavery to the present day."
Andrea Drysdale “The frightening lack of recognition of Black people’s contribution to where we are today is gargantuan. Henrietta’s cells are used all over the world, including Bristol. Henrietta also deserves a visual representation within a leading university”
Kai Drysdale “I would say that this project needs to be based in Bristol not only because of the current studies underway on Henrietta’s cells in Bristol Universities, but because of Bristol’s rich Black history and how it still has relevance in our modern-day society.”
Luke Burguete, PhD student in Neural Dynamics, University of Bristol and co-founder of The Learning Forum "The Henrietta Lacks project is such an important thing for both the University and the City of Bristol to get behind. Given the history of slavery within this city and the exploitation of Black people by the life sciences in general, it is vital we start recognising this legacy and publicly acknowledging the debt that we owe to people like Henrietta."
Campaign poster by Poppy (aged 12) and Rosie (aged 10)
We have an ambitious target of £96,700 in total to raise.
The diagram below shows the distribution of funds across the project elements, with a large proportion of the funding supporting an exciting and positive education programme for both school children and students in higher education. If we easily reach this target we would like to run a stretch target to further boost the education programme.
The University of Bristol have pledged to donate to the campaign and further funding is being sort from official funding bodies. We are also approaching the pharmaceutical industry for support.
Be part of this campaign and help us make history!
Please donate whatever you can. Every penny will make a real difference for Henrietta's memory and legacy for future generations.
And please share our campaign regularly with your friends and family!
The Big Screen Project - Millennium Square, Bristol 2018. Nineteen images of Helen Wilson-Roe's paintings, along with works by other international artists, were projected onto a screen in Millennium Square Bristol for a week, curated by The Lord Mayor at that time, Cleo Lake. Image by John Roe.