City hon­ors Hen­ri­etta Lacks, un­sung med­i­cal hero

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Luke Broad­wa­ter

The walls of a City Hall con­fer­ence room are adorned with por­traits of sev­eral men from Bal­ti­more’s his­tory: abo­li­tion­ist Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Supreme Court Jus­tice Thur­good Mar­shall, for­mer con­gress­man and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume and neu­ro­sur­geon Dr. Ben Car­son, among oth­ers.

On Thurs­day, the were joined by an im­por­tant woman.

Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake ded­i­cated a por­trait of Hen­ri­etta Lacks — the Turn­ers Sta­tion woman whose cells have led to ground­break­ing ad­vances in medicine.

“We have so many peo­ple in our city who have sto­ries that are un­told or cer­tainly not re­mem­bered in the way that I think they should be,” Rawl­ingsBlake said. “She’s one of those peo­ple. ... I’m proud to get to shine a light on some peo­ple whose im­pact has been enor­mous.”

The paint­ing was do­nated to the city

by Dr. Eva McGhee of the Charles R. Drew Uni­ver­sity of Medicine and Sci­ence in Cal­i­for­nia. McGhee, an art col­lec­tor, com­mis­sioned the por­trait from the artist Emmy Lu of Bev­erly Hills.

McGhee, a ge­net­ics re­searcher, said her work con­vinced her of a need for more trib­utes to Lacks.

“I work on cer­vi­cal can­cer, and I was amazed at all of the dis­cov­er­ies” that have re­sulted from Lacks’ cells, McGhee said. “I wish I could travel the world and let peo­ple know the im­pact her cells have had.

“Look at the po­lio vac­cine, look at in­fluenza, look at HPV. She gave so much to the world.”

McGhee de­clined to say what the paint­ing cost. She said she do­nated it to Bal­ti­more be­cause she thought giv­ing the por­trait to Lacks’ home state was “one of the most re­spect­ful things I could do.”

Born in Roanoke, Va., in 1920, Hen­ri­etta Pleas­ant Lacks came to Bal­ti­more in 1941 with her hus­band, who planned to work in the Beth­le­hem Steel plant in Spar­rows Point. Soon af­ter the birth of her fifth child, she was di­ag­nosed with an ag­gres­sive form of cer­vi­cal can­cer. She died in 1951 at the age of 31.

Af­ter her death, doc­tors at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal took cells from Lacks and used them — with­out her fam­ily’s knowl­edge or per­mis­sion — to con­duct years of re­search.

The so-called HeLa can­cer cells, which due to their ag­gres­sive na­ture were the first to sur­vive out­side a hu­man body in a glass tube, have been shared with labs across the coun­try. The most widely used hu­man cells that ex­ist to­day in sci­en­tific re­search, they have helped re­searchers de­velop vac­cines, can­cer treat­ments and in-vitro fer­til­iza­tion tech­niques.

The med­i­cal pro­fes­sion sub­se­quently changed its rules to re­quire physi­cians to get per­mis­sion be­fore tak­ing cells.

Sev­eral mem­bers of Lacks’ fam­ily were on hand Thurs­day to wit­ness the ded­i­ca­tion. Al­fred Lacks Carter, Hen­ri­etta’s grand­son, said he started the Hen­ri­etta Lacks House of Heal­ing in Owings Mills to pro­vide ser­vices for those strug­gling with home­less­ness and sub­stance abuse.

“I want to em­brace the legacy my Dr. Eva McGhee, left, and Bal­ti­more Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake ad­mire the por­trait of Hen­ri­etta Lacks, painted by artist Emmy Lu. McGhee, a ge­net­ics re­searcher who fo­cuses on cer­vi­cal can­cer, com­mis­sioned the paint­ing and do­nated it to the city. grand­mother left,” he said. “I want to con­tinue to help oth­ers. My grand­mother pos­i­tively im­pacted the world.”

Jeri Lacks, Hen­ri­etta’s grand­daugh­ter, has watched word of her grand­mother’s con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence spread. Re­becca Sk­loot’s best-sell­ing 2010 book, “The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks,” is be­ing made into a movie by Oprah Win­frey; it is sched­uled for re­lease next year.

“It’s a great honor for her to have an­other place for peo­ple to know her story,” Jeri Lacks said. “It’s ex­cit­ing. Things are pro­gress­ing. She’s fi­nally get­ting rec­og­nized. She’s an un­known hero.”

A spokesman for Rawl­ings-Blake said Lacks’ por­trait will be the sec­ond of a woman to hang in the con­fer­ence room. The other is singer Bil­lie Hol­i­day.

Dr. Nancy Kass, a pro­fes­sor of bioethics at the Johns Hop­kins Bloomberg School of Public Health, teaches classes about Hen­ri­etta Lacks’ cells. Kass called her an “ex­tra­or­di­nary woman.”

She said she hopes the por­trait will serve as a last­ing re­minder of Lacks’ con­tri­bu­tions. “When our chil­dren come into City Hall in fu­ture decades … let’s tell them this por­trait is a tes­ta­ment to the for­got­ten voices who are al­ways our part­ners,” Kass said. “It’s a tes­ta­ment to the need for sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the cau­tion and hu­mil­ity with which we as sci­en­tists must al­ways do our work.”

“It’s a great honor for her to have an­other place for peo­ple to know her story. … She’s fi­nally get­ting rec­og­nized.” Jeri Lacks, grand­daugh­ter of Hen­ri­etta Lacks

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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