Henrietta Lacks (not her portrait)
Henrietta Lacks (not her portrait)

Henrietta Lacks, the Baltimore woman whose cancer cells have contributed to decades’ worth of groundbreaking research after her death, has been memorialized in a portrait that will be hung in City Hall.

In what may be one of her final public appearances while in office, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will unveil the portrait in the City Hall Rotunda today, according to ABC2. Lacks’ family is scheduled to join her for the unveiling. The Sun reports Dr. Eva McGhee, an assistant professor at the Charles R. Drew School of Medicine in Los Angeles, is donating the painting to the city.

Lacks became famous for her wide-ranging contributions to medicine well after her death in 1951. She was a 31-year-old cancer patient being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital when she passed away. As detailed in Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a lab technician discovered her cells had continued to reproduce posthumously in a contained environment. The cells, named “HeLa” cells after their originator, have continued growing and have been used by researchers to develop a vaccine for polio, treatments for cancer, Parkinson’s disease, among others, gene mapping, cloning and medical diagnostics, to name a few uses. They’re still used today in labs around the country.

For a long time, Lacks and her family got no credit in the scientific community for her unending contribution to medical research. Attempts have since been made to right those wrongs. Johns Hopkins created an endowed lectureship and a scholarship at an East Baltimore school in her name, and in 2013 the NIH said they would give the Lacks family control over the cells and acknowledge them in research using the HeLa cells. In addition, Skloot founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which gives grants to families whose members have also contributed to scientific research but didn’t receive their due.

The portrait will hang in the Board of Estimates room alongside likenesses of other famous Baltimoreans. It’s not the first attention that’s been drawn to her story this year. Oprah has been seen around Baltimore filming for a movie (starring her) based on Skloot’s book.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...