Statue of black woman to be unveiled in Bristol

Artist Helen Wilson Roe unveiling her portrait of Henrietta Lacks Credit: Bhagesh Sachania Photography / University of Bristol / PA

A statue of a black woman whose cells led to crucial medical advances is to be displayed at a the University of Bristol later this year.

The artwork of Henrietta Lacks will be the first public sculpture of a black woman made by a black woman in the UK.

Lacks, a young mother born in 1920 in the US, died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951 but a sample of her cells survived and multiplied.

The cells were taken from her body after she died without her consent - something that raised ethical questions. Since her case most countries now have specific rules and laws around informed consent for patients.

This discovery however led to the polio vaccine, gene mapping and IVF treatment among others and resulted in her being named the "mother" of modern medicine.

Lacks' granddaughter Jeri Lacks said: "As the world celebrates Henrietta Lacks' centennial, my family eagerly anticipates the unveiling of this tribute to Henrietta Lacks the woman - and her phenomenal HeLa cells.

"It is incredible to see our Hennie rightfully honoured for her worldwide impact."

Artist Helen Wilson-Roe, who has been commissioned to create the statue, said: "To have the University of Bristol commission me as a black female Bristolian artist to create a life size bronze statue of an iconic black woman to be placed in the University of Bristol's grounds, will be history in the making.

"This is the university offering more than lip service or tokenistic gestures, but actually committing to supporting a black female artist by sustaining my art and recognising Henrietta Lacks.

"As a child growing up in Bristol there were no statues of black women that I could identify with so knowing that my children and their grandchildren and great grandchildren will be able to see Henrietta's statue in Bristol is just fantastic especially at this time when Bristol is starting to address its past."

Historical ethical questions were raised on how Henrietta's Lacks family weren’t even aware of the existence of the cells until 1973. Credit: Flickr/yooperann

It was during surgery that a sample of cells was taken from the tumour in Louisiana-born Ms Lacks' body before she died in Baltimore, aged 31.

It was sent to a laboratory where they were found to be the first living human cells ever to survive and multiply outside the human body.

These cells changed the course of modern medicine, making possible key medical advances including the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene-mapping, IVF and cloning.

They became known as HeLa cells, taking the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks' first and last names.

HeLa cells are used in almost every major hospital and science-based university in the world.

University deputy vice chancellor Professor Judith Squires added: "We look forward to celebrating the life and legacy of Lacks in the form of this bronze statue, which will be the first statue of, and by, a black woman in the city."

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