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Henrietta Lacks portrait acquired by Smithsonian museums

Michelle Obama will soon have some new company at the National Portrait Gallery. And, like the former first lady’s portrait by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, this work also has a Charm City connection.

The Smithsonian has acquired a portrait of Henrietta Lacks, the Baltimore County woman whose cells changed medicine and whose story inspired a book and HBO film. It will be shared by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“It is fitting that Henrietta Lacks be honored at two Smithsonian museums, as each approaches American history from unique and complementary perspectives,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

The work will be installed at the National Portrait Gallery on May 15, and will be on view through Nov. 4.

The portrait was commissioned by HBO, which also produced a film about Lacks’ life in 2017 called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The film is based on a nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot. It was donated by Kadir Nelson, the artist who painted it, and JKBN Group LLC.

The portrait includes subtle references to Lacks’ story. The background motif includes the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality, flowers on her dress recall cell structures, and two missing buttons allude to the cells taken from her body without permission.

Born in Roanoke, Va., in 1920, Henrietta Pleasant Lacks came to Baltimore in 1941 with her husband, who planned to work in the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point. Soon after the birth of her fifth child, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. She died in 1951 at the age of 31.

After her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took cells from Lacks and used them — without her family's knowledge or permission — to conduct years of research.

The so-called HeLa cancer cells, which due to their aggressive nature were the first to survive outside a human body in a glass tube, have been shared with labs across the country. The most widely used human cells that exist today in scientific research, they have helped researchers develop vaccines, cancer treatments and in-vitro fertilization techniques.

The medical profession subsequently changed its rules to require physicians to get permission before taking cells.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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