The Henrietta Lacks (HBO) HeLa Project Exhibition: The Mother of Modern Medicine

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the HBO adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-seller by the same name is set to premier in April. To celebrate Lacks’ life and invaluable contribution to science, HBO has brought together a number of conscious artists for a traveling exhibition that launched in SOHO, NYC on April 6th and will travel on to D.C. for the premiere, as well as Atlanta.

Architecture of Tomorrow HBO HeLa Project Doreen Garner Henrietta Lacks Derrick Adams kadir nelson

The exhibition features “Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine” a portrait by Kadir Nelson. Nelson is an acclaimed illustrator, most recently gaining much attention for his counter-point portraits appearing on the covers of The New Yorker and Ebony magazine.

Lewis Long of the esteemed Long Gallery in Harlem curated a fantastic group of artists as well, with works contributed by Doreen Garner, Derrick Adams, Tomashi Jackson, Zoe Buckman, Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich.

Bringing you up to speed on one of the single most important medical discoveries in modern science, Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia made a trip to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951 at the age of 31, complaining of a knot in her womb.  A few months later the Mother of five died of cervical cancer.

Architecture of Tomorrow HBO HeLa Project Doreen Garner Henrietta Lacks

“Reliquary for Henrietta” Doreen Garner

Medical researchers at Hopkins, harvested cancer cells of the still living Lacks without consent—things have changed, these days consent must be granted, but back then it was common practice. The cells were discovered to be “Immortal Cells”. The family was not made aware of this generous contribution until a chance meeting in 1975 when a current researcher met a member of the family and made the connection.

Architecture of Tomorrow HBO HeLa Project Doreen Garner Henrietta Lacks Derrick Adams

Derrick Adams

The HeLa cell lines under sufficient conditions will reproduce themselves indefinitely. With this rare ability, the cells are a medical researcher’s dream come true because they can be used for a multitude of studies. HeLa cells were used to create a polio vaccine, cloning and in-vitro fertilization owe their discovery to Henrietta Lacks’ cells, we now know that we have 46 chromosomes and not 48, anti-cancer drugs, HIV research and the resultant “cocktail”, NASA sent HeLa cells on their first manned mission and discovered they grow faster in outer space. One could fill multiple pages giving only short descriptions of all the biological gains science has achieved because of the HeLa cells. In short, without them, we would not have common tests for many diseases including polio, tuberculosis, HIV, leukemia, and breast cancer.

The struggles of the Lacks’ family isn’t over yet though. Apparently, the family is divided on how their Mother and Father are represented in both the book and the new film starring Oprah. Henrietta’s son, Lawrence, now 88 years old who among the living Lack’s is the only one to have a true memory of his parents, he was 17 at the time of his mother’s death and also cared for her, refused to sign off on any agreements with HBO. In his words, if he had signed, he wouldn’t be able to speak his mother’s name without the permission of HBO and Oprah. In the book and film, Henrietta is presented as an illiterate sharecropper. But Lawrence contends that his mother could read and write and helped in with his school work as a child. Lawrence’s son also refused to sign and accept the $16,000 buyout, so at least for the future we will always have a protector of the true life of Henrietta Lacks.