‘Arrowsmith’ by Sinclair Lewis
By: Aaron Kucyi
Scientific research is often viewed as a means to an end. The goal may be to develop an effective medical therapy, to enhance our quality of life, or to keep us safe and secure. Practical Science is the voice of grant applications, business ventures, political campaigns, and many scientific publications themselves. While the potential value of this applicable form of science is easily comprehensible, lesser understood is the worth of another Science: the kind that is for the sake of science alone.
It is this Pure Science—driven only by the desire to seek truth—which Sinclair Lewis explores profoundly in his1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Arrowsmith. Widely considered to be the first major novel concerned with the culture of science, Arrowsmith tracks the career trajectory, interpersonal relationships, passions, and pitfalls of an American man who sees scientific research as his calling.
Martin Arrowsmith, exposed to medical practice at a young age while working at the rural office of a drunken elderly doctor, becomes fascinated with tools and textbooks. Martin attends medical school, but here he scorns his classmates, professors, and the medical educational system in general. He admires only rogue-like characters who are not constantly concerned with wealth and social status, such as the renowned German bacteriologist Max Gottlieb. Ultimately, Gottlieb serves as an inspiration to Martin in the struggle to become a “pure scientist” in a world of ignorance and corruption.
Martin’s career involves work as a research assistant for Gottlieb, a rural doctor, a public health official, and a bacteriology scientist. His passion for science drives him to sleepless nights in the lab, where he makes ground breaking discoveries. In contrast to many of his colleagues, however, Martin does research simply because he enjoys seeking truth. While others constantly pressure him to publish quickly and to commodify his work, Martin always demands more time to confirm his findings and turns down lucrative financial offers. Indeed, Martin aspires to attain the zealous attitude perfected by his mentor Gottlieb, who is described as being “so devoted to Pure Science… that he would rather have people die by the right therapy than be cured by the wrong.”
Martin is no hero in his personal life. In a classic scene he announces to two women that he is engaged to both of them at once, and when he is married to Leora, who cares for him unconditionally, he often neglects and sometimes insults her. Martin rarely finds pleasure in socializing with colleagues, and he is often condescending. Altogether, Martin’s attitude contains many features that are still consistent today with stereotypical notions of a ‘scientist personality signature’: a hedonist for pure truth, overly consumed with crunching numbers and proving others wrong; a socially inappropriate cynic overly critical of popular culture.
Arrowsmith deals with ethical issues that have become magnified in importance in the contemporary science world, such as research misconduct, conflicts-of-interest, and complications of public science communication. It is arguably more difficult today than ever to practice Pure Science, given the ever-increasing growth of ulterior incentives provided by sources that are far-removed from the intrinsic personal desire to seek truth. Lewis’ depiction of Martin as someone who is non-heroic but is to be highly respected for his self-discipline and honesty perhaps signifies that Pure Science alone is not always enough, but is nevertheless of great inherent value. Martin’s extremism is not a single simple answer to the problem of corruption in science, but it cannot be dismissed.
In Arrowsmith, Lewis demonstrates that creative fiction can demystify the culture of science in a witty and illuminating manner that isnot possible withother approaches. The novel’s messages are more important today than ever and should be considered as science continues to both provide real-world solutions and satiate human curiosity.
Rating: 4 stars