A Statue of Henrietta Lacks Will Replace a Monument to Robert E. Lee

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A life-size bronze statue of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cancer cells were taken without her consent and were used for research that ushered medical discoveries and treatments, will be erected in her hometown, Roanoke, Va., next year in a plaza previously named after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Roanoke Hidden Histories, an organization dedicated to acknowledging Black history in the community’s public spaces, raised more than $183,000 for the project.

In a news conference announcing plans for the statue on Monday, a local artist, Bryce Cobbs, presented a preliminary black-and-white drawing of Ms. Lacks wearing a blazer and a knee-length skirt with her arms folded. The sculptor, Larry Bechtel, will use the drawing as a reference to design the statue on a stone base.

Mr. Bechtel said he would first make a two-foot model based on the drawing and then make a second, six-foot model that will eventually be molded and cast into bronze. “Hopefully, if everything goes right, we will have an unveiling of this splendid sculpture next October,” Mr. Bechtel said.

Ron Lacks, Ms. Lacks’s grandson, said the effort to honor his grandmother had been a long time coming. “This means a lot to my family,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to seeing “the sculpture that will honor her forever in this beautiful city of Roanoke.”

The finished statue will stand downtown in Henrietta Lacks Plaza, where a Robert E. Lee monument once stood. That monument, erected in 1960, was scheduled to be removed after it was found damaged in July 2020. Plans to rename the plaza took shape after the monument was hauled away that summer. At least 230 Confederate symbols across the United States have been removed, relocated or renamed since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ms. Lacks, who was born in Roanoke and later moved to Baltimore with her husband during the 1940s, died from cervical cancer at 31 in 1951. She left behind five young children and an unrivaled medical legacy.

Just months before her death and without her knowledge, consent or compensation, doctors removed a sample of cells from a tumor in her cervix. The cells taken from Ms. Lacks behaved differently than other cancer cells, doubling in number within 24 hours and continuing to replicate.

The cell sample went to a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who was trying to find cells that would survive indefinitely so researchers could experiment on them. The cells derived from that sample have since reproduced and multiplied billions of times, contributing to nearly 75,000 studies.

The cell line named after Ms. Lacks, HeLa, has played a vital role in developing treatments for influenza, leukemia and Parkinson’s disease, as well as advancing chemotherapy, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more.

According to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book about her life that was turned into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey, Ms. Lacks’s family members did not learn about the use of her cells until 1973, when scientists contacted them for blood samples so they could study their genes.

Last year, 70 years after her death, the World Health Organization honored Ms. Lacks for the contribution that she unknowingly made to science and medicine. A life-size bronze statue of Ms. Lacks was also erected last year at the University of Bristol in England.

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