What the family say

    It was important for Helen to meet the Lacks family in person. Uniquely, she has now met almost all of Henrietta's descendants. Find out what some of them had to say.

    Image: Lacks family

    ‘If you want to find out the truth about somebody or a situation, like Rwanda, then you go to that place and you meet the people,' says Helen. 

    ‘I read a lot about Rwanda, but it wasn’t until I went there and met the people and politicians that I formed my own opinions. I was then able to do the work. It was the same with this story. I had to meet the family. They are the ones telling Henrietta’s story now.’ 

    Oil painting from Making Sense of a Rwandan Story by artist Helen Wilson-Roe Image from Making Sense of a Rwandan Story, © Helen Wilson-Roe. Helen previously focused on painting impressions from the Rwandan genocide before turning her gaze to Henrietta and her family. 

    ‘I don’t think nobody should own nobody else’s body or cells.’  
    Lawrence Lacks says: ‘It makes me feel proud she’s contributed something to society. The only thing about that is, so many pharmaceutical companies are recreating her cells and selling them. That’s a different story. 

    ‘Helping others, that’s a great feeling. Knowing that you’ve saved millions of lives. Controlling her cells...? I think they should be shared with the world.’ 

    Close up portrait of Lawrence Lacks Lawrence is Henrietta’s oldest son. He was 16 when she died in 1951. Image: John Roe

    ‘They violated her human rights' 
    ‘Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman says: ‘They didn’t have no respect for her or anybody else. I don’t like it that these people are making billions of dollars off my mother’s cells, and I can’t get nothing? We’re still in a state where we’re [just] trying to survive. 

    ‘What happened, happened. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s nothing to cry about. It’s something you have to accept. It’s like a cry that will never be heard.’ 

    Oil painting of Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman by artist Helen Wilson-RoePainting of Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joseph Lacks) by Helen Wilson-Roe. Abdul is Henrietta’s youngest son. Henrietta delayed her cancer treatment to carry him to term. Image: Lacks family

    ‘They should have let the family know what they were doing.' 
    Sonny Lacks says: ‘I think the lesson the medical field has learnt from the death of my mother is they do not take tissues now without written consent. Back in those days when my mother died, they could do it then. But now, since her death, they changed laws all the way around for what a doctor can do. 

    'I feel good about the things her cells have done for the world. I am really glad to be a part of it.’ 

    Oil painting of Sonny Lacks by artist Helen Wilson-RoePainting of Sonny Lacks by Helen Wilson-Roe. Sonny is Henrietta’s second son. He was a huge help to Helen in meeting the rest of the Lacks family and getting around their home town. Image: Lacks family

    ‘These tiny cells have done massive things.’ 
    Jeri Lacks-Whye says: ‘Knowing what her cells have contributed to is just an awesome feeling. It affected the family in a positive way. 

    ‘It’s so surprising that they’re actually cancerous cells, not her normal cells. It’s just amazing that her cancer cells have done so many great things. My father even jokes, she’s the first African-American woman to go up into space!’

    Close-up portrait of Jeri Lacks WhyeJeri is Sonny’s daughter and Henrietta’s granddaughter. She was Helen’s first point of contact with the Lacks family. Image: John Roe

    ‘Without the source, all of this wouldn’t be.’  
    David Lacks says: ‘Once they get to a level where they’re patenting stuff, and making billions of dollars, at least compensate the source. I know it took more than just her cells – it took a lot of smart people to come up with what they came up with. 

    ‘But even in the music industry, if somebody writes a song, other people might make money but they pay a 3% royalty. That would be nice, at least to take care of the family.’

    Head and shoulders shot of David Lacks David is Henrietta’s grandson, and Jeri’s brother. He is a member of a US National Institutes of Health committee that reviews and approves the use of data from the HeLa genome. Image: John Roe

    ‘Thanks again, Helen.’  
    Jeri says: ‘We will finally have a very special piece that we, as Henrietta’s descendants, can say we own. I’m so excited – overfilled with joy and pride. Words can’t describe how I felt when I saw the wonderful portrait you have painted of Henrietta.’

    Artist Helen Wilson-Roe painting Henrietta Lacks's portraitHelen painting She Will Outlive Us All in her Bristol studio. Image: Karen Brett