The immortal life of lobsters: A letter to the author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Editor’s Column

Christina is the Opinion editor for Ethic News.


Should this ever reach Rebecca Skloot, award-winning author and renowned science journalist, know that I, creatively strung out high schooler, felt for the first time in perhaps a decade the unrelenting, childlike desire to really learn after reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” As I raced through my copy, the near-catatonic section of my brain assigned to learning jolted awake, like a student caught dozing off in class. I was the peacefully sleeping student and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was the textbook passive-aggressively dropped onto my desk – the ear-splitting slap of hardcover hitting faux oak sent my mind frantically scrambling to comprehend all that I had allowed myself to miss.

Betrayed by many a textbook before, I must admit that when this novel was assigned as required reading I had already resigned myself to endure yet another acclaimed expert sit atop their untouchable mountain of expertise and fling incomprehensible jargon and abstract scientific concepts at the heads of all who made the mistake of opening the front cover. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here was the general sentiment. However, much to my surprise, this novel practically grabs the reader by the shoulders and shoves them headfirst into the dizzying world of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells.

First, I have to address the lobster in the room – and the myth of immortality that surrounds the crustacean. Contemporary research suggests that lobsters may not slow down or weaken with age because they continue to excrete telomerase, an enzyme that repairs the sections of DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres, throughout adulthood in most of their tissue. Telomeres are the biological equivalent of the plastic tips on shoelaces; they keep chromosome ends from fraying – thus protecting an organism’s DNA – and, just like shoes wear out with time, telomeres shorten with each cell division in a process associated with aging. Lobsters, however, seemed to possess the elusive elixir of immortality with their extended production of telomerase late into adulthood. Naturally, people eagerly leapt to fanciful conclusions, propagating the notion there are immortal lobsters scuttling around the ocean floor, untouchable by time and a non-fine-dining related death. And naturally, for most of my life, I believed it.

I kept believing this lobster longevity lie right up until I stumbled upon a Smithsonian article cruelly titled “Don’t Listen to the Buzz: Lobsters Aren’t Actually Immortal,” and the other shoe finally dropped.

Turns out, despite the telomerase, lobsters still only grow by moulting, and logically, the larger the lobster, the more metabolic energy is required to carry out the process. Hence why 10 to 15 percent of lobsters die of exhaustion during moulting, and older lobsters ultimately cease moulting, causing their exoskeletons to eventually collapse entirely as they all inescapably wind up sleeping with the fishes.

Thus, it was the myth of deathless lobsters that clamored for my attention as this novel described science’s inability to even properly report Henrietta Lacks’s name, much less honor her legacy. Henrietta Lacks, a poor black farmer, whose cancerous cells – obtained without her knowledge or consent in 1951 – became an unparalleled tool in medical research and the key to developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. I could not comprehend how the scientific community, so rooted in painstaking precision and sadistic thoroughness, could for so long overlook the real woman behind those immortals cells – until I remembered the only other immortal being to my knowledge, and the other incomplete picture I had so willingly accepted for so long.

This revelation was merely the beginning of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” making itself far too comfortable on my conscience, which, in retrospect, must be the entire point. The determination of this novel to discuss Henrietta Lacks as the real woman she was and follow the heartbreak of the Lacks family as they felt it humanizes the unfeeling, unfathomable science and history so that the clueless layman, like myself, stands a chance at comprehending it all. It was the irrepressible humanity of the Lackses that made the barrage of ceaseless information and sordid injustices bearable. It was Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta, who tore at the heartstrings the most for she could have easily been either my cookie-baking grandma or doe-eyed little sister, desperate for the most mundane scraps of information—not necessarily the precise mechanisms of Henrietta’s curious cells—but simply what was her mother’s favorite song or color. In all, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” to me was not only an invitation to embark on a crusade for the recognition of Henrietta Lacks’ innumerable contributions to science but also a reminder to pick at the threads of life’s inconsistencies and unexplained dead-ends, for who knows what long-hidden truths may unravel and present themselves—be it not-immortal lobsters or one woman’s immortal legacy.

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