(CNN) — A statue of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used without her consent in crucial medical research, will replace a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Roanoke, Virginia.
Lacks, a Black mother of five receiving treatment for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital, was undergoing radium treatments in 1951 when tissue from her cancer was removed and sent to another doctor’s lab without her consent. Cancer researcher George Gey used Lack’s tissue to cultivate a line of cells that are still used in medical research today. The hospital says on its website that while “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.”
Lacks died later that year from her cancer at age 31.
A statue dedicated to Lacks and her contribution to science will be erected in Roanoke, Lacks’ hometown, in fall of 2023, according to the city’s Facebook page. The plaza, previously known as Lee Plaza, has also been renamed to Lacks Plaza in her honor.
The city started the legal process to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, erected in 1960, in June of 2020. In July of that year, the statue was found knocked over and broken into two pieces, according to CNN affiliate WDBJ.
In a December 19th press conference, city officials unveiled a preliminary sketch for the statue and celebrated Lacks’ life.
“In the past, we commemorated a lot of men with statues that divided us,” said Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney who has represented Lacks’ estate, at the press conference. “Here in Roanoke, Virginia, we will have a statue of a Black woman who brings us all together.”
Trish White-Boyd, the city’s vice mayor, said that the Roanoke City Council had voted unanimously to rename the plaza.
“We want to honor her, and to celebrate her,” White-Boyd said of Lacks.
The city exceeded its goal of fundraising $160,000 for the statue, she added.
The cell line produced from Lacks’ cells, called HeLa cells, allowed scientists to experiment and create life-saving medicine, including the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. They’ve also helped advance cancer and AIDS research.
Ron Lacks, Henrietta’s grandson, said “it was an honor just to come down here” at the conference. He lauded Roanoke for actually working with Lacks’ family and estate to design the statue.
And Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s only surviving child, said the statue of his mother would make him “the happiest person in the world.”
Artist Bryce Cobbs crafted a sketch of Lacks that will be used as inspiration for the statue. Creating the sketch was “a humbling experience,” said Cobbs at the press conference. “Just being involved with something like this, that has so much historical impact, is a huge humbling moment. I couldn’t imagine being surrounded by more supportive people.”
Larry Bechtel, the sculptor who will create the sculpture, called the project a “big deal” at the conference. “I’ve had a number of commissions, but this one is singular,” he said.
Little was known about Lacks’ impact on modern medicine outside the medical community until author Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book about her life, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Since then, activists and institutions have worked to posthumously honor Lacks’ nonconsensual contributions and to raise awareness about the Black women’s often-unknown contributions to science. In 2018, the Smithsonian unveiled a portrait of Lacks at the National Portrait Gallery. And in 2021, the World Health Organization honored her with an award.
“In honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement at the time.