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Quick Hit: Henrietta Lacks is being honored in the National Portrait Gallery

More than six decades after Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer as doctors performed research on cells taken from her without her consent, she’d being honored with a painting in the National Portrait Gallery. The painting recognizes her life, the significance of the “immortal” cells stolen from her, and the nature of the violation against her

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery recognizes the life of Henrietta Lacks with the installation of a 2017 portrait by Kadir Nelson. The painting will be installed on the museum’s presentation wall on the first floor Tuesday, May 15. The portrait was jointly acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as a gift from Nelson and the JKBN Group LLC, and will be shared by the two museums. The artwork will be on view at the Portrait Gallery through Nov. 4.


Lacks (1920 – 1951), whose great-great-grandmother was an enslaved person, lost her life to cervical cancer at age 31. During her treatment, doctors took cells from her body and discovered they lived long lives and reproduced indefinitely in test tubes. These “immortal” HeLa cells have since contributed to over 10,000 medical patents, aiding research and benefiting patients with polio, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.


Commissioned by HBO, Nelson used visual elements to convey Lacks’ legacy. The wallpaper features the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality; the flowers on her dress recall images of cell structures; and two missing buttons allude to the cells taken from her body without permission.

2 thoughts on Quick Hit: Henrietta Lacks is being honored in the National Portrait Gallery

  1. “Stolen” from her? They had no economic value to her. What should the doctors have done – offered her family five dollars for a release?

    1. Stealing doesn’t have to be an economics issue. They took something of hers without her consent, and regardless of the market value, that is theft.

      You’ll note that releases and consent forms are a huge deal in medical research, because they’ve recognized that from a medical ethics standpoint, it isn’t acceptable experiment on someone else’s body parts — even just a few cells — without their knowledge and agreement. That came in large part from the case of Henrietta Lacks.

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