Arrowsmith is a classic American novel written by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis wrote this book in the early 1900s as a current outlook on the world of science at that time. The main theme it focuses on is commercialism and its effect on science. During this time period, there were many advances in the field of medicine; everyone was racing to find the cure to deadly diseases and then patent it and profit off it.
Helping humanity was more of a business than a service to the human race as doctors and institutes became more and more capitalistic. Like a business trying to maximize its profit, many doctors and scientists cut corners and guessed at many things so they could get their products or methods on the market as fast as possible.
However, there were a few scientists who stayed strictly devoted to their science, not letting money, glory, and success corrupt them. Scientists such as this despised commercialism and held contempt against the other doctors and scientists who fell into that system of capitalism. The book follows the life of Martin Arrowsmith, a scientist who is torn between pure science and commercialism.
He wants to be a true scientist but he is pushed into commercialism by everyone he meets, except for a select few. Among the few is Max Gottlieb, who is Martin’s model for everything a true scientist should be. Gottlieb is a bacteriologist who is completely against the capitalist values of commercial doctors and scientists; he devotes himself religiously to his science, and he believes in being completely thorough and not guessing or accepting things without completely understanding them.
Terry Wickett, a disciple of Gottlieb’s, holds all the same values and attitudes as Gottlieb toward capitalism and commercialism. He helps Martin break away from commercialism, and become a true scientist. Another person who greatly helps Martin in his life is his first wife, Leora Tozer, who stands by and supports Martin no matter what. She devotes herself to Martin as much as Gottlieb devotes himself to his science. She supports him in whatever decision he decides to make, she helps and comforts him in his times of need, and she remains completely loyal to him at all times, even when he is not completely loyal to her.
The story starts with Martin Arrowsmith as a medical student at Winnemac University, where he was first introduced to commercial science and pure science, and made to choose between the two. It is here that Martin first meets Max Gottlieb, who was a professor and the university and head of the bacteriology department and becomes completely in awe of him. His classmates mock Martin for his choice in an idol, because they see Gottlieb as somewhat of a failure in life, simply because he is poor and not very high standing or recognized in society, which is actually what Gottlieb prefers to be. A few of Martin’s classmates that have a significant effect on his life are Ira Hinkley, Angus Duer, and Clif Clawson. Ira Hinkley is a humanitarian, self-righteous reverend who later becomes a missionary in the West Indies.
He is studying medicine for the purpose of helping humanity and gaining glory for himself along the way. Angus Duer is a social climber who is studying science more for the sake of obtaining the inherent respect held for doctors and scientists. He does all the methods and techniques with a cold precision but only because he was told to do them, not because he wants to understand why things are the way they are. Clif Clawson is completely centered on making money and being successful.
He went into medical school solely because he would be able to make a lot of money being a doctor or physician. The university essentially teaches students how to make money from their knowledge through commercialism, even more than the actual medical science itself. The following passage is part of a lesson that Dr. Roscoe Geake, who is a professor in the university, gives to his students. “Knowledge is the greatest thing in the medical world but it’s no good whatever unless you can sell it, and to do this you must first impress your personality on the people who have the dollars. Whether the patient is a new or an old friend, you must always use salesmanship on him.
Explain to him, also to his stricken and anxious family, the hard work and thought you are giving to his case, and so make him feel that the good you have done him, or intend to do him, is even greater than the fee you plan to charge. Then, when he gets your bill, he will not misunderstand or kick.” Martin is constantly being pushed towards the commercial side of science and away from Gottlieb and pure science.
Almost everyone in the university is trying to persuade him to do the same as them and become a practicing doctor who works for profit, instead of a poor scientist who works for years before producing even the smallest discovery, which may or may not help anyone. Eventually, he gives in and leaves Gottlieb to receive his doctorate and become a physician in Wheatsylvania, North Dakota, the hometown of his fiancee, Leora Tozer.
In Wheatsylvania, Martin is presented with the life of a commercial physician, and he becomes appalled with it. He learns that being a physician is more like trying to make it appear as if you are helping people than actually doing it. He finds that their main skill is not actually healing the patient, but dealing with the family after they failed to save the patient. They glorify their failure by saying they did all they could and more, and they spread the blame around as to not detract from their respectability.
A physician in a neighboring town named Doctor Winter gives Martin this advice. “In a crucial case, you better call some older doctor in consultation—not that you need his advice, but it makes a hit with the family, it divides the responsibility, and keeps ‘em from going around criticizing.” Disgusted with this, Martin tries to be an honest physician, but he gets heavily criticized by all the other physicians and the entire town.
The other doctors criticize him for not asking them for advice and splitting fees, and the townspeople think he is some hotshot doctor who believes he is above everyone else and cares for no one save himself, which is ironic because he is the only one who is truly trying to help them. After a while, Martin decides to leave when he receives an offer for a job in a medical institute in the city of Nautilus where he is led to believe he will be free to research whatever he wants. In Nautilus, Martin works in a medical institute under its director, Dr. Pickerbaugh. Dr. Pickerbaugh supports the idea of pure science and research and allows Martin freedom to research whatever he wants, but only to a certain extent.
After Martin has been working a while Pickerbaugh becomes impatient because so much time has passed and Martin has not produced anything, so he begins to push Martin to publish his research and let the world know what he does. So once again Martin finds himself being pushed toward commercialism. Pickerbaugh wants him to publish so that the world may benefit from his work, and also so that glory and fame may come to Martin and the institute, which leads toward profit.
After a few years, Martin decides to leave after receiving a letter from Max Gottlieb asking him to work with him in New York. Gottlieb is working at the McGurk Institute in New York under director Dr. Tubbs, who has granted Gottlieb complete freedom in his research. Dr. Tubbs is a social-climber completely driven by commercialism. Everything he does, he does to profit himself and the institution. When Martin comes into the institution, Tubbs grants him the same freedom as Gottlieb.
He is free to research whatever he wants for as long as he wants, and so Martin returns to Gottlieb and meets Terry Wickett. For a while, everything goes well until Tubbs learns about Martin’s research and tries to get him to publish it. Martin is researching and experimenting with what could possibly be the cure to many of the deadly diseases at the time, such as tuberculosis and the Black Death. He refuses to publish because he has not finished the research and to publish right away would be straying away from pure science and towards commercialism again.
Tubbs wants Martin to publish not because it would help humanity, but because it would bring fame and fortune to the institute. In commercialism, everything is a race to discover and produce something and then patent it and take the credit. We see this when another scientist in another institute publishes the same discovery on which Martin is also working. Tubbs is severely disappointed with Martin for not publishing sooner so that he could receive the credit and recognition, and he tells Martin to start working on creating other cures and publish them quickly. However, Martin decides to continue research on his current project and see if the other scientist missed or overlooked anything, which is approved by Gottlieb.
Throughout this entire time, Gottlieb is helping Martin stay true to science and protect him from success. In the following passage, Gottlieb is telling Martin what it means to be a true and authentic scientist. “To be a scientist—it is not just a different job so that a man should choose between being a scientist and being an explorer or a bond-salesman or a physician or a king or a farmer. It is a tangle of very obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry; it makes its victim all different from the good normal man.
The normal man does not care much about what he does except that he should eat and sleep and make love. But the scientist is intensely religious—he is so religious that he will not accept quarter-truths because they are an insult to his faith. “He wants that everything should be subject to inexorable laws. He is equally opposed to the capitalists who think their silly money-grabbing is a system, and to liberals who think the man is not a fighting animal; he takes both the American booster and the European aristocrat, and he ignores all their blithering.
Ignores it! All of it! He hates the preachers who talk their fables, but he is not too kindly to the anthropologists and historians who can only make guesses, yet they have the nerf to call themselves scientists! Oh, yes, he is a man that all nice good-natured people should naturally hate!
“He speaks no meaner of the ridiculous faith-healers and chiropractors than e does of the doctors that want to snatch our science before it is tested and rush around hoping they heal people, and spoiling all the clues with their footsteps; and worse than the men like hogs, worse than the imbeciles who have not even heard of science, he hates pseudo-scientists, guess-scientists—like these psycho-analysts; and worse than those comic dream-scientists he hates the men that are allowed in a clean kingdom like biology but know only one text-book and how to lecture to nincompoops all so popular! He is the only real revolutionary, the authentic scientist because he alone knows how little he knows.
“He must be heartless. He lives in a cold, clear light. Yet dis is a funny thing: really, in private, he is not cold nor heartless—so much less cold than the Professional Optimists. The world has always been ruled by the Philanthropists: by the doctors that want to use therapeutic methods they do not understand, by the soldiers that want something to defend their country against, by the preachers that yearn to make everybody listen to them, by the kind manufacturers that love their workers, by the eloquent statesmen and soft-hearted authors—and see once what a fine mess of hell they had made of the world! Maybe now it is time for the scientist, who works and searches and never goes around howling how he loves everybody!”
Because of his research of a cure for the Black Death, Martin is sent to the West Indies where there is a serious epidemic of the Plague. He travels there with Leora and another scientist named Gustaf Sondelius, and meets with his former classmate, Reverend Ira Hinkley, who is now a missionary and doctor in the West Indies. Once there, Martin is faced with the extremely difficult decision between science and humanity. At this point, his research and tests on the cure are not complete and it is not certain whether or not the cure will work. However, Hinkley, Sondelius, and everyone else who knows he has a cure are pushing him to distribute it among the masses.
Here he faces the question of whether he should immediately distribute the cure with the fairly large possibility of failure, or if he should withhold it until his tests are complete and he is certain on whether or not it will work. He has a dream where he gets in a car crash, and he has to choose between his science and the lives of others. “Shrieks, death groans, the creeping flames…. The car turning, falling, plumping into a river on its side; himself trying to crawl through a window as the water seeped about his body…. Himself standing by the wrenched car, deciding whether to keep away and protect his sacred work or go back, rescue people, and be killed.” Martin chooses to continue his tests and be certain that the cure will work, as the population continues to be ravaged by the Plague.
During this time, both Hinkley and Sondelius die of the Plague. Martin keeps up his work until Leora contracts the Black Death and dies. In his grief, Martin gives in and distributes the experimental cure to everyone. After the epidemic dies out, all the people of the West Indies label Martin as a hero and a savior, despite what the people thought of him when he withheld the cure. However, he feels that he betrayed Gottlieb and his science.
It seems that commercialism often disguises itself as humanitarianism or uses humanitarianism to justify itself. It pushes you to act quickly and hopefully without any of the certainties demanded by science. For example, the main reason Sondelius went to the West Indies was to find glory and fame, rather than saving the lives of thousands of people. However, he used humanitarianism as a way to try to persuade Martin to distribute the cure. When Martin refused, Sondelius called him a monster and claimed that Martin was not willing to help the suffering population, nor did he care about the hundreds of thousands of people dying from the Plague.
What is ironic about this is that this pure science tends to benefit humanity more than commercialism science in the long run. The notion that one significant improvement over a long period of time is better than a series of failures and half-successes is drowned out by the propaganda of commercialism. Pure science produces methods and medicines that are certain.
They have been thoroughly tested and proved to be successful, as opposed to the medicines produced by commercial scientists. While they produce more, they are not certain as to what effect they will have. They hope that if their product works in one situation, it will work in every situation. However, commercial science does have positive points as a pure science has negative points.
While pure science is more certain it is also much more long-term. Commercial science gives immediate care and help, despite how much it may actually help. Pure science is presented as something that looks toward and works for the future, while commercial science deals with what is happening at the moment, but commercialism hinders pure science so much that, in effect, it may be bringing about the destruction of its own future.