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The Henrietta Lacks Legacy

The Henrietta Lacks Legacy

Remembering history and bringing art to science in the service of humanity

Henrietta Lacks maquette

On Oct. 4, 2023 – Henrietta Lacks Day in Virginia – the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC dedicated a statue of Lacks in the atrium of 4 Riverside Circle on Virginia Tech's Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke, Virginia. Lacks was born in Roanoke and lived here as a small child before moving to Clover, Virginia, and eventually to Maryland. 

lacks historical photo

In 1951, Lacks, a black woman, was treated for cervical cancer at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. Some of her cancer cells were extracted for use in research without her knowledge or consent. At the time, there were no federal regulations or restrictions on the use of patients’ cells in research.

Lacks died the following year, but her cells were unique in their ability to continuously grow and divide in the laboratory. Now called the “HeLa” cell line after the first two letters of her first and last names, the “immortal” cells have helped enable some of the most important advances in biomedical research.

Between 1953 and 2018, more than 110,000 scientific publications cited the use of HeLa cells, including, in three instances, Nobel Prize winning research, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC is grateful to Henrietta Lacks and her surviving family members for their contributions to biomedical research and proudly displays her likeness here, where she continues to play a role in advancing human health.

The original full-scale statue of Lacks stands in Henrietta Lacks Plaza in downtown Roanoke. Blacksburg sculptor Lawrence Bechtel created the statue based on a concept by Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs. The statue was commissioned by Roanoke Hidden Histories and funded with support from community partners, including the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.


“The amazing thing in my mind is how her cells have lived on for decades in laboratories all over the world, including right here at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. This statue has a special meaning of stewardship, obligation, and sensitivity. Today is a day to commit to reflecting, it's a day to deeply appreciate, understand, and pay due respect, calling out and recognizing the injustice that was done while honoring Henrietta Lacks and her family.  These commitments embody the power of remembering history, and bringing art to science in the service of humanity.”

Michael Friedlander and Lacks maquette

Michael Friedlander, Executive Director, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute; Virginia Tech Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology


Henrietta Lacks Day, 2023

Lacks Day doodle drawing

Doodle drawing of the unveiling of the Henrietta Lacks statue in Downtown Roanoke
By Steven White for Virginia Tech

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