The story of how one woman’s cells revolutionized medical science


The Immortal woman

For my Final Major Project I decided to create a campaign that I named “The Henrietta Lacks Project”. The campaign is about an American woman who passed away in 1951, but will continue to live on forever in her cells. Cells taken from a malignant tumor in her cervix continued to grow on their own outside of the human body. They named her cell line “HeLa”. This was a major accomplishment for medical science as now they could not only map the human genome and make discoveries on the chromosonial level, but they could also easily test new medications and vaccines on human cells without harming any subjects.

The collection and use of the cells however is a controversial topic. In the 1950s there was no need for consent from the patient to either retrieve the cells or use them in research. The cells were taken from Henrietta and used in research without her knowledge. After her death, her family was oblivious to Heniretta´s “immortality”, and continued to live in poverty. As her story has become more known, her family has made it clear that they support the use of the cells, because they help people. The only thing they wish for is that Henrietta gets the recognition she deserves. That is why I have made this campaign.

The Henrietta Lacks Project Box

For the main piece of this campaign I have made a 3-tier stacked box. The box is divided into 3 layers which explore their own part of the story. The box and identity is inspired by the 1950s and stories from Henrietta life.

The top layer details the medical aspects of the story. It includes a replica of her cells on a Petri dish under fluorescent light, a small circular print with information about the cells, tubes of blood and a patient log with the real doctors´notes from Henrietta visit at Johns Hopkins.

The second layer tells you moe about the story from a historical and social point of view. I have added an envelope with news clips from real articles about the HeLa cells, an envelope with a letter from Johns Hopkins himself and a card which describes the segregation at the hospital, and a book that tells you about the different accomplishments that HeLa led to.

In the bottom layer you get to know Henrietta the way that her family and friends did. Everything from her red nail polish to a hymn sung in her honor. The layer also includes a book with testimonials from people who knew her, her portrait and a flower pattern inspired by her home town Clover and the tobacco farm she grew up on.

Website wireframe

For anyone interested in learning more about the subject, I have also made a website prototype with a more in-depth timeline. The website is an interactive piece where you can learn more and take a look at the contents of the box.

By learning more about Henrietta and her cells, you might also start thinking more about your own rights and boundaries. What can be done with my blood and tissue after it has been taken? Is it still my own after it has left my body?