Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal Mother of Modern Medicine Will Be Honored in the Smithsonian

Artist Kadir Nelson, Oprah Winfrey and Jungmiwha Bullock stand beside Nelson’s painting of Henrietta Lacks at the Washington, D.C., premiere of HBO Films’ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on April 19, 2017..
Photo: Paul Morigi (Getty Images for HBO)

Here’s a fitting Mother’s Day tribute: A portrait of the woman responsible for some of the greatest research of the 20th and 21st centuries—including polio and in vitro fertilization—will now be featured in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.


Henrietta Lacks was a Virginia woman who was diagnosed with and died of aggressive cervical cancer in 1951, and subsequently had her cells harvested by doctors at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital without her family’s knowledge or consent. Her story—and that of her still-reproducing cells, nicknamed “HeLa”—became well-known in 2o10 because of science writer and researcher Rebecca Skloot, who wrote a best-selling book about her efforts to uncover the mystery of HeLa: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

The book became an HBO film by the same name in 2017, starring and produced in part by Oprah Winfrey, who portrayed Lacks’ daughter Deborah. HBO, in turn, commissioned a portrait of the late mother of five from acclaimed artist Kadir Nelson, who wrote of the work:

I elected to paint a prideful and glowing portrait of Henrietta Lacks, who is often referred to as, ‘The Mother of Modern Medicine,’ visually juxtaposing art and science. She stands with her beautifully manicured hands crossed, covering her womb (the birthplace of the immortal cell line) while cradling her beloved Bible (a symbol of her strong faith). Her deep red dress is covered with a vibrant floral pattern that recalls images of cell structure and division.

According to Nelson’s Instagram post, further symbolism in the portrait includes “her bright yellow hat, which functions as a halo, her pearls as a symbol of the cancer that took her life, and the repeated hexagonal wallpaper pattern, a design containing the ‘Flower of Life,’ an ancient symbol of immortality and exponential growth. The buttons missing from her dress reference the cells that were taken from her body without her permission.”


The Glow Up tip: This profoundly beautiful work will be shown in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from Tuesday, May 15, through Sunday, Nov. 4.

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Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.