Henrietta Lacks statue concept drawing unveiled in Virginia, where she lived before moving to Baltimore area

Artist Bryce Cobbs stands next to the drawing he created of Henrietta Lacks which was unveiled in Roanoke Va. Monday Dec. 19 2022. The drawing will be used in the design process of a larger than life bronze statue. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

ROANOKE, Va. — A future statue of Henrietta Lacks will depict the historical figure from Roanoke standing with arms folded in a blazer, long skirt and heeled shoes, according to a recently released drawing.

The drawing was undraped in a brief ceremony Dec. 19 giving residents a first look at the concept for the planned statue to be permanently installed across from the city municipal building in fall 2023. About 100 people attended.


Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs had only two photos of Lacks, who lived from 1920 until 1951, from which to draw her, the first phase of a project for which a fundraiser collected more than $160,000.

Blacksburg artist Larry Bechtel will begin the creation of the statue by crafting a 24-inch model in oil-based clay, guided by the drawing and recollections of her family, including her only living child, Lawrence Lacks.


“This means a lot to my family,” Ron Lacks, Lawrence’s son, said at the event.

The finished work, a hollow bronze figure weighing about 400 pounds, will stand 6 feet high — 6 inches taller than Lacks actually was, Bechtel said. Crews will mount her on a stone base beneath five crepe myrtles in Lacks Plaza.

The project grew out of a sense that Roanoke would be remiss to not honor Lacks since this is her place of birth and where she spent the first few years of her life. Lacks, who grew up on a tobacco farm in Clover, a part of Halifax County, is honored with signs, markers, statues and exhibits in various places in the United States and the world. She later moved to Turner Station near Dundalk in Baltimore County.

Lawrence Lacks, left, son of Henrietta Lacks and grandson Ron Lacks, center, attend the ceremony in Roanoke, Virginia, on Monday, Dec. 19 2022.

She was the source of a living cell line used in globally important medical research. Known today as HeLa cells, they constitute the first known immortal line of human cells in history. However, the doctors involved, who were treating her for cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore extracted and studied the tissue without her permission shortly before her death.

Members of her family say neither they nor her estate were compensated. A lawsuit is pending in federal court in Maryland on behalf of Lacks’ estate, arguing that drug companies engaged in “unjust enrichment,” said Ben Crump, the plaintiff’s lawyer, who attended the event.

“It’s an unprecedented lawsuit because Henrietta Lacks was an unprecedented human being,” Crump said. “Pharmaceutical companies have made billions and billions and billions of dollars. The family hasn’t gotten one red penny.”