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Henrietta Lacks further immortalized with portrait at Baltimore City Hall

A portrait of Henrietta Lacks will soon hang in Baltimore's City Hall.

The walls of a City Hall conference room are adorned with portraits of several men from Baltimore's history: abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, among others.

On Thursday, the were joined by an important woman.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake dedicated a portrait of Henrietta Lacks — the Turners Station woman whose cells have led to groundbreaking advances in medicine.

"We have so many people in our city who have stories that are untold or certainly not remembered in the way that I think they should be," Rawlings-Blake said. "She's one of those people. ... I'm proud to get to shine a light on some people whose impact has been enormous."

The painting was donated to the city by Dr. Eva McGhee of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California. McGhee, an art collector, commissioned the portrait from the artist Emmy Lu of Beverly Hills.

McGhee, a genetics researcher, said her work convinced her of a need for more tributes to Lacks.

"I work on cervical cancer, and I was amazed at all of the discoveries" that have resulted from Lacks' cells, McGhee said. "I wish I could travel the world and let people know the impact her cells have had.

"Look at the polio vaccine, look at influenza, look at HPV. She gave so much to the world."

McGhee declined to say what the painting cost. She said she donated it to Baltimore because she thought giving the portrait to Lacks' home state was "one of the most respectful things I could do."

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.

Several members of Lacks' family were on hand Thursday to witness the dedication. Alfred Lacks Carter, Henrietta's grandson, said he started the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing in Owings Mills to provide services for those struggling with homelessness and substance abuse.

"I want to embrace the legacy my grandmother left," he said. "I want to continue to help others. My grandmother positively impacted the world."

Jeri Lacks, Henrietta's granddaughter, has watched word of her grandmother's contribution to science spread. Rebecca Skloot's best-selling 2010 book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," is being made into a movie by Oprah Winfrey; it is scheduled for release next year.

"It's a great honor for her to have another place for people to know her story," Jeri Lacks said. "It's exciting. Things are progressing. She's finally getting recognized. She's an unknown hero."

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said Lacks' portrait will be the second of a woman to hang in the conference room. The other is singer Billie Holiday.

Dr. Nancy Kass, a professor of bioethics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, teaches classes about Henrietta Lacks' cells. Kass called her an "extraordinary women."

She said she hopes the portrait will serve as a lasting reminder of Lacks' contributions.

"When our children come into City Hall in future decades … let's tell them this portrait is a testament to the forgotten voices who are always our partners," Kass said. "It's a testament to the need for scientific discovery. It's a testament to the caution and humility with which we as scientists must always do our work."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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