This novel was inspirational for several generations of pre-medical and medical students. It follows the hero, Martin Arrowsmith, from his days as a medical student through the vicissitudes of his medical/scientific career. There is much agonizing along the way concerning career and life decisions. While detailing Martin’s pursuit of the noble ideals of medical research for the benefit of mankind and of selfless devotion to the care of patients, Lewis throws many less noble temptations and self-deceptions in Martin’s path. The attractions of financial security, recognition, even wealth and power distract Arrowsmith from his original plan to follow in the footsteps of his first mentor, Max Gottlieb, a brilliant but abrasive bacteriologist.

In the course of the novel Lewis describes many aspects of medical training, medical practice, scientific research, scientific fraud, medical ethics, public health, and of personal/professional conflicts that are still relevant today. Professional jealousy, institutional pressures, greed, stupidity, and negligence are all satirically depicted, and Martin himself is exasperatingly self-involved. But there is also tireless dedication, and respect for the scientific method and intellectual honesty.

Martin’s wife, Leora, is the steadying, sensible, self-abnegating anchor of his life. In today’s Western culture it is difficult to imagine such a marital relationship between two professionals (she is a nurse). When Leora dies in the tropics, of the plague that Martin is there to study, he seems to lose all sense of himself and of his principles. The novel comes full circle at the end as Arrowsmith gives up his wealthy second wife and the high-powered, high-paying directorship of a research institute to go back to hands-on laboratory research.


Sinclair Lewis was awarded (but refused to accept) the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith. His father was a country doctor, and the novel was further strongly influenced and informed by his collaboration with the bacteriologist/author, Paul DeKruif, author of Microbe Hunters, to whom Lewis dedicated the book.

De Kruif had worked at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research where he met the German-American scientist, Jacques Loeb, whom the character Max Gottlieb was, in part, modeled after. Lewis and De Kruif traveled to the tropics together while formulating the scientific background for the novel. It is worth noting that antibiotics were not yet in use when the book was written, but rather than seeming dated, public health aspects of the story can be viewed in the context of modern deadly viral infections and antibiotic resistant bacterial diseases.


Harcourt, Brace

Place Published

New York



Secondary Source