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University commissions sculpture of Henrietta Lacks on International Women’s Day

Helen Wilson Roe at the unveiling of her portrait of Henrietta Lacks – currently on display outside the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building Bhagesh Sachania Photography

Helen in her studio at work on the portrait Karen Brett

Press release issued: 10 March 2021

The University of Bristol has commissioned local artist Helen Wilson Roe to create a sculpture of Henrietta Lacks, a Black American woman whose human cells were the first ever to survive and multiply outside the body.

The piece will be the first public sculpture of a Black woman made by a Black woman in the UK and will be installed on the University campus later this year.

It follows the exhibiting of two of Helen’s portraits of Henrietta Lacks and Cllr Cleo Lake, Bristol’s first Black female Lord Mayor, which have been on display in the Wills Memorial Building since October last year.

Henrietta Lacks was a young mother who died of an unusually aggressive form of cervical cancer. During surgery, a sample of cells was taken from the tumour and 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.  

Because Henrietta’s cells were able to proliferate indefinitely, they formed the first scientifically defined ‘immortal’ human cell line, opening the door to all kinds of experiments and research on cell behaviour.  

These cells changed the course of modern medicine, making possible some of the most important medical advances of all time 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’s first and last names. HeLa cells are used in almost every major hospital and science-based University in the world.  

Henrietta’s cells are also currently being used in our own COVID-19 research in the University of Bristol.   

Working in collaboration with the Lacks family, it is hoped the unveiling of the sculpture will be accompanied by an exhibition in October of vibrant, compelling portraits by Helen Wilson-Roe featuring Henrietta Lacks and her family called ‘A Brush with Immortality’.

A widening participation education project and a Henrietta Lacks Masters Scholarship are also being planned.

The announcement of the commission coincides with a yearlong celebration to mark the centenary year since Henrietta’s birth. 2021 also symbolises 70 years of use of HeLa cells.

Jeri Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ Granddaughter, said: “This International Women’s Day, my family proudly supports the University of Bristol’s historic commission of artist, Helen Wilson Roe, to create a sculpture of Henrietta Lacks.

“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 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.”

Professor Jeremy Tavaré, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, added: “As someone who has benefited from Henrietta’s cells in my own research, I am honoured to be able to announce this commission.

“The unveiling of the sculpture will coincide with an educational plan that will mark the start of the Faculty of Life Sciences working on the decolonisation of our curriculum which will include an acknowledgement of the invaluable contributions Black people have made to science over the years.”

Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost of the University, said: “We are immensely proud to be commissioning this statue of Henrietta Lacks by local Black artist Helen Wilson Roe. 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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