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A First in the UK

Oct. 5, 2021

The first public sculpture of a black woman made by a black woman in the UK has gone on display in Bristol.

Henrietta Lacks had cancer and her cells changed the course of modern medicine. The cells taken from Ms Lacks, without her consent or knowledge, were the first living human cells to ever survive and multiply outside the body. They have allowed great strides in cancer research; some of the most important medical advances to date including the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene-mapping, IVF, cloning and more recently for Covid-19 research. They became known as HeLa cells, taking the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last names.

The statue by Bristol artist Helen Wilson-Roe is a life-sized bronze and the unveiling marked the 70th anniversary of Henrietta's death. The artist said: "As a child growing up in Bristol there were no statues of Black women that I could identify with. So, knowing that my children and their grandchildren and great grandchildren will be able to see Henrietta's statue is just fantastic especially at this time when Bristol is starting to address its past."

The statue, commissioned by the University of Bristol was unveiled outside Royal Fort House in the campus grounds by Henrietta Lack's family. It is a fitting ripost to the sad history of the statue of the slave trader Coulston in the city, now removed and housed in their museum, no longer causing offence and hurt in the streets. In contrast this is a statue of someone who has contributed, via the work of researchers, untold good to the community and the wider world.