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Henrietta Lacks’ hometown will build statue of her where Robert E. Lee sculpture once stood

(ROANOKE, Va.) — A bronze statue honoring Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose “immortal” cells have resulted in countless medical breakthroughs, will be built in her birthplace of Roanoke, Virginia.

Artist Bryce Cobbs unveiled a life-sized preliminary drawing of Lacks in a ceremony announcing the statue on Monday.

“The fact that I’m involved in this project means the world,” Cobbs said at a press conference. “I’m humbled to be a part of history in this way and just to be trusted with the task of making sure that I just captured Mrs. Henrietta Lacks the best way I could.”

Sculptor Larry Bechtel said he will reference the drawing in his design, which is set to be unveiled in October 2023.

Roanoke Hidden Histories, an initiative of the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, and Roanoke Vice-Mayor Trish White-Boyd are working to “surface the hidden histories of the African American experience in Roanoke.” They commissioned the project, which recently surpassed its $160,000 goal.

The statue will stand in downtown Roanoke’s Henrietta Lacks Plaza, previously named Lee Plaza after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

A statue of Lee was removed from the site after being toppled over in 2020 in the wake of the Black Live Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder.

Lacks’ grandson, Ron Lacks, said he was excited about the project.

“This is an honor and a privilege to be here in Roanoke with my father, Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest and only living child,” he said at the ceremony on Monday. “This historical moment, occasion, has been a long time coming.”

The family was joined by attorney Ben Crump, who said the statue will serve as a reminder that Henrietta Lacks lives on through her legacy and great, though unwitting, contribution to science and medicine.

“I just think it’s so fitting in the state of Virginia … where in the past we commemorated a lot of men with statues that divided us. Now here in Roanoke, Virginia, we will have a statue of a Black woman who brings us all together,” he said.

In 1951, Lacks received treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the only medical centers accepting Black patients at the time. There, a gynecologist took a sample of her cells, sending it to a lab for research without her knowledge or consent, her family says.

Though Lacks died just months later, her cells, later named “HeLa” cells, were discovered to be remarkably “immortal,” lasting longer than any other samples scientists had seen, even multiplying every 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins.

Scientists say HeLa cells are estimated to have saved millions of lives through medical advancements, including the polio vaccine, coronavirus vaccines, cancer treatments, AIDS treatments, Parkinson’s treatments, and human survival in zero gravity.

Crump is also heading a lawsuit against biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific filed by Lacks’ family last year that his firm says will “lay the foundation for genetic justice.” Lacks’ family claims the corporation has unjustly made money off Lacks’ cells without permission from the family.

“When you consider issues of genetic justice, reproductive rights, and stem cell research, there are a lot of historical figures who we like to suggest that their contributions changed the world,” Crump said on Monday. “Well, in the case of Henrietta Lacks, we have objective evidence. If I was in the court of law, I would say we have empirical evidence that Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells literally changed the world.”

Thermo Fisher told ABC News it does not comment on pending litigation.

“Although these were the first cells that could be easily shared and multiplied in a lab setting, Johns Hopkins has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line,” Johns Hopkins said in a statement. “Rather, Johns Hopkins offered HeLa cells freely and widely for scientific research.”

“Having reviewed our interactions with Henrietta Lacks and with the Lacks family over more than 50 years, we found that Johns Hopkins could have – and should have – done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests. Though the collection and use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in research was an acceptable and legal practice in the 1950s, such a practice would not happen today without the patient’s consent,” the statement said.

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