Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died at a young age of cervical cancer in 1951. Unbeknownst to her or her family, Johns Hopkins Hospital biopsied her tumor during her treatment there. While most human cells survive only a few days in the laboratory, Henrietta Lacks’ cells had a unique indestructible characteristic. Medical researcher Dr. George Otto Gey used her cells to create a strain known today as the HeLa cell line. Since its discovery and creation, researchers such as Jonas Salk have used the immortal HeLa cell line to transform medical science and discover treatments for a variety of diseases. The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a fascinating read.
Johns Hopkins was a white man, one of the wealthiest businessmen of the mid-1800s, a philanthropist, and an abolitionist. He was a Quaker whose family freed its slaves in the early 1800s. The most well-known of his bequests is the Johns Hopkins Hospital and University.
Last week, Gaia completed a mural of Henrietta Lacks and Johns Hopkins in East Baltimore. In addition to their portraits, the mural includes various flowers and microscopic images of the cultured HeLa cells. Yvonne Hardy-Phillips curated this mural project for her master’s thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Arts.
You will find this memorial to Henrietta Lacks on the corner of E Biddle Street and Harford Avenue. Be sure to also see the additional artwork Yvonne Hardy-Phillips curated on the south side of this building: the mural entitled Many Hands Make Things Grow by Katey Truhn and Jessie Unterhalter; and, the large-scale wheatpaste project entitled I Am That I Am by Christopher Metzger. Ms. Hardy-Phillips envisions a few additional art projects at the site.
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