Henrietta was an African American woman who died of an aggressive form of cancer on 4 October 1951. While she underwent treatment, a sample of her cancer cells was taken without her consent. Following Henrietta’s death, discoveries made using her cells changed medical research forever. Known as HeLa, the cells have allowed scientists to make significant breakthroughs in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer, polio, HIV and many other diseases.
The question of how and whether her race affected her treatment, the lack of obtaining consent, and her relative obscurity, continues to be controversial. Henrietta’s story has been the subject of news articles, documentaries, a book and also a film starring Oprah Winfrey.
The exhibition was organised by staff from the North West Cancer Research Centre at the University of Liverpool in collaboration with theatre company Eclipse and Liverpool-based artist Faith Bebbington.
Visitors enjoyed art by both artists and scientists inspired by her story, met scientists from the University of Liverpool and had the unique opportunity to view HeLa cells under the microscope.
The week-long ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ residency ran between 30 September to 6 October 2019, dates that marked both the beginning of Black History Month and the anniversary of Henrietta’s death.
During the exhibition, organisers invited two of Henrietta’s grandchildren Jeri Lacks Whye and David Lacks Jnr to come to Liverpool to visit the exhibition and to meet with University of Liverpool scientists who are working with her cells as part of their cancer related health research. The family also visited the North West Cancer Research Centre at the University and the Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust, meeting clinicians as well as cancer patients and survivors who have benefitted from discoveries made using HeLa cells.
Jeri Lacks said “We have been so delighted to visit Liverpool and witness how HeLa cells are helping scientists all over the world to help beat cancer and many other diseases. This is the first time our family has been invited to an event of this type outside of the US and to see all of the incredible artwork inspired by our grandmother’s story has been quite profoundly moving.”
Tate Exchange is an open experiment; a space for an ongoing programme of events developed by artists, practitioners, and associates. It is a place where everyone is invited to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life, through art.
Staff and student looking for more information about Tate Exchange and how to take part in future programmes can visit the University’s Tate Exchange pages here.