The most important detail from Henrietta Lacks’s portrait is what’s missing

The full portrait of Henrietta Lacks in the National Portrait Gallery.
The full portrait of Henrietta Lacks in the National Portrait Gallery.
Image: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture
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The full portrait of Henrietta Lacks in the National Portrait Gallery.
The full portrait of Henrietta Lacks in the National Portrait Gallery.
Image: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture

Henrietta Lacks’s life ended abruptly and painfully. In 1951, at the age of 31, Lacks died in Baltimore, Maryland from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. But her legacy, in the form of a cell line derived from her cancer cells have lived on literally ever since.

While Lacks was seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, her doctors scraped away some of the cells from her tumor and kept them alive and thriving in petri dishes. No other human cells had been able to survive and replicate outside the body at that point in time, which had severely limited scientific research. What came to be called the “HeLa” cell line was essential in the breakthroughs that led to the polio vaccine, as well advances in HIV and cancer treatments.

Now there’s another addition to the Lacks legacy. On Monday (May 14) the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled a painting of Lacks, the newest addition to its collection. The Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American Art and Culture’s joint purchase of the Lacks painting is just the latest in a series of recent events that have sought to right the wrongs many feel were done to Lacks and her family. But this is also one of the only of those efforts that has make the Lacks family feel Henrietta is getting recognized in the right way.

Though many scientists—and the world more generally—have benefitted from Lacks’s cell line, but neither she nor her family ever gave permission for her tissue to be used in a lab setting. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 when a family friend serendipitously asked a colleague about the history of the HeLa line when the family realized these cells had been taken at all.

Lacks’s stolen cells are far from the only first instance of racism in scientific research. Just a few years before Lacks visited her first physicians was the start of the now-infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, in which federal US researchers infected hundreds of African American men with syphilis and lied about giving them treatment in order to see the full effects of the disease’s progression.

Last year, the Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s son, unsuccessfully sought compensation from Johns Hopkins for Henrietta’s contributions to public health. The university claims that because it never patented the cells, it ever profited from them. HeLa cells have been publicly available—though that has been somewhat limited since 2013, when the US National Institutes of Health created a review panel, which includes two Lacks family members, for all research proposals involving the cell line.

Previous attempts to depict Henrietta’s story have disappointed the family, as well. Lawrence complained to the Baltimore Sun that neither The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot nor the HBO adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey did do justice to his mother’s life.

But seeing the Lacks’s saintly portrait hanging on a prominent wall at the gallery in Washington thrilled Lacks family.

HBO commissioned the portrait in conjunction with the promotion of the 2017 film. An HBO spokesperson tells Quartz that the painting was created “with a larger goal in mind to ensure her legacy lived on” after the film premiered.

HBO selected an artist with an acuity for storytelling. Los Angeles-based painter Kadir Nelson is also the author of several best-selling children’s books on African-American culture and worked as the lead artist for Steven Spielberg’s 1997 historical drama Amistad. The 44-year old artist uses tropes drawn from allegorical religious portraiture to summarize the biography of the so-called “Mother of Modern Medicine.”

“She stands with her beautifully manicured hands crossed, covering her womb (the birthplace of the immortal cell line) while cradling her beloved Bible (a symbol of her strong faith). Her deep red dress is covered with a vibrant floral pattern that recalls images of cell structure and division,” Nelson writes in an Instagram post. “Her bright yellow hat, which functions as a halo, her pearls as a symbol of the cancer that took her life, and the repeated hexagonal wallpaper pattern, a design containing the ‘Flower of Life,’ an ancient symbol of immortality and exponential growth.”

But the portrait’s most essential detail is one Nelson purposely omitted. Missing from her crimson dress are several buttons that allude to the cells harvested from Lacks’s body.

In the portrait, Lacks is depicted wearing pearls. That’s a reference to her illness—according to doctor reports at the time, Henrietta’s tumor looked like pearls. But they can be interpreted through all sorts of different lenses. “Pearls seem like it’s classy, just a test of time—and that’s what she was, she was classy,” Kimberly Lacks, Henrietta’s granddaughter, told NPR. “I just think it’s amazing. A great representation of our grandmother.”