Unsavory motives

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Diana Gitig 23 February 2013

Visionary: Lewis' tale rings true today

I suppose there is more science and scientific thought in Arrowsmith than in any other novel that has hitherto appeared in the world

Stuart P. Sherman, a prominent and conservative literary critic, reviewed Arrowsmith upon its release in 1925 for New York Herald Tribune Books. He noted:

I suppose there is more science and scientific thought in Arrowsmith than in any other novel that has hitherto appeared in the world. … The sum of [Lewis’] satire consists in the suggestion that the advancement of science, though much prated about in America, is a long way from being the first interest in the quarters of its professed friends.

Thankfully the former assessment probably doesn’t hold true any longer, but the satire may be as accurate now as it was almost a century ago.

Lewis got his scientific jargon from Dr. Paul Henry de Kruif, a bacteriologist at Rockefeller who left the lab to write Microbe Hunters and other works of science for public consumption. Lewis accurately relates how Arrowsmith isolates trypanosomes from a rat and stains them with methylene blue; how he writes up and submits his results on the effects of radiation on the anti-Shiga phage; how he uses partial oxygen-carbon dioxide tension to reproduce phage. Sherman was concerned that the public might not go for it, but that was not the case. Arrowsmith has been hailed as one of Lewis’ greatest works. It landed him the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 (he declined it) and made him the first American to win the Noble Prize in Literature, in 1930 (he accepted that one).

Martin Arrowsmith is a true scientist, as defined by his mentor Max Gottleib: “He wants that everything should be subject to inexorable laws.” The protégé of a small town country doctor, he stumbles into a research lab – and Max Gottleib, the uncompromising German scientist who runs it – in medical school. Gottleib becomes his hero, and the Search for Truth his calling. He finds his fellow medical students venal – “commercial” he calls them – and concerned much more by their future salaries and the décor of their future offices than by the health of their future patients. He suffers through unsuccessful stints as an intern in a big city hospital, a country doctor like the man who first inspired him, a public health servant, and finally a lab tech at a colleague’s surgical clinic; with each position he must suffer the accompanying fools. Meanwhile, Gottleib runs afoul of Big Pharma in the form of the Hunziker Company, which wants to patent and market his antitoxin before he is absolutely positive that his technique for making it in vitro is sound. Finally, master and student are reunited at the McGurk Institute, only to find that even this supposed bastion of pure intellectual curiosity is run by “men of measured merriment,” more interested in their limousines and clothing than in data.

“It is possible that Max Gottleib was a genius,” wrote Lewis. Gottleib speculates on what would happen if he, Arrowsmith and their ilk were successful at eliminating tuberculosis and other major epidemics: the earth would become overcrowded, and people’s natural immunity would be so low that they would be fatally vulnerable to any new plague that might emerge. So in addition to being a lyrical writer and a canny satirist - Lewis may have been a seer.