I read Sinclair Lewis’s classic so long ago, I’m not sure how old I was at the time. Reading it now, in the context of a career in science and the critical focus of fiction about science, I was both surprised and perplexed. Surprised, because I had remembered so little and perplexed by what I remembered. It seems that only the last fifty pages had left an impression on me. How could I have forgotten that the story traces the career arc of a physician-scientist from boyhood to middle age?
Although I can’t account for my selective memory, I can state unequivocally that Arrowsmith belongs to both the lab-lit genre and fiction about science. It’s main character is a medical student captured by the science he learns and deeply influenced by his teacher, whose commitment to the pursuit of fundamental knowledge is almost a caricature. Skipping over many important years of Arrowsmith’s life, during which he moves from one unhappy career in medical practice to another, the plot includes his search for an explanation of a chance observation, his all-too-common experience of losing a race for recognition he didn’t know he was in, and his attempt to apply his finding to a very pressing problem in the real world.
More than anything else, Arrowsmith is a portrait of the tension between a scientist’s pursuit of understanding for its own sake and society’s demand that the scientific enterprise “pay its way” by discovering useful knowledge — results that will cure and prevent disease, make life more comfortable, and in its worst manifestation make a few people very wealthy. That’s the point of taking the reader on Arrowsmith’s long journey from private practice in the tiny rural community of Wheatsylvania, North Dakota, to service as the assistant director of the Department of Health in the small city of Nautilus, Iowa, to a short term of serving the medical needs of the wealthy at Rouncefield Clinic in Chicago, to a position of junior research scientist at the McGurk Institute of Medicine in New York City. The latter is a fictional version of Rockefeller University, a extravagantly furnished laboratory organization devoted exclusively to basic research in medical science.
Before evaluating Arrowsmith and recommending it, I want to remind you that that the book was published in 1925. Expect the language of both the narrative and the dialogue to be dated. Also keep in mind that although the themes and character types may not have changed much, the scientific enterprise has. Much of Arrowsmith’s career would be almost impossible today; five to ten years of private practice and a single publication would not usually be a satisfactory background for a job offer from even a moderately prestigious research institution. That said, the themes of the novel are still relevant to contemporary science: the tension between basic and applied research, and the general public’s lack of appreciation and understanding of basic science. I enjoyed revisiting the novel. (See also Diana Gitig’s excellent article on Arrowsmith at lablit.com/article/762.)