Arrowsmith (novel)

Arrowsmith is a novel by American author Sinclair Lewis, first published in 1925. It won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize (which Lewis declined). Lewis was greatly assisted in its preparation by science writer Paul de Kruif,[1] who received 25% of the royalties on sales, although Lewis was listed as the sole author. Arrowsmith is an early major novel dealing with the culture of science. It was written in the period after the reforms of medical education flowing from the Flexner Report on Medical Education in the United States and Canada: A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1910, which had called on medical schools in the United States to adhere to mainstream science in their teaching and research.

First edition
AuthorSinclair Lewis
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarcourt Brace & Co. (US)
Jonathan Cape (UK)
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback), digital, and audio cassette
Pages440 pp (paperback)
ISBN0-451-52691-0 (paperback); ISBN 0-89966-402-4 (hardcover)


Arrowsmith tells the story of bright and scientifically minded Martin Arrowsmith as he makes his way from a small town in the Midwest to the upper echelons of the scientific community. (He is born in Elk Mills, Winnemac, the same fictional state in which several of Lewis's other novels are set.) Along the way he experiences medical school. He becomes engaged to one woman, cheats on her with another woman, becomes engaged to the second woman and then finally invites both women to a lunch to settle the issue. He eventually insults his mentor, Max Gottlieb, and is suspended from medical school. He takes up life as an ordinary worker, then marries Leora with her family supporting him based on the promise that he would take up private practice as the only doctor in tiny Wheatsylvania, North Dakota. Frustrated with private practice, he becomes a public health official in Iowa and becomes romantically involved with the young daughter of the public health director. After a series of political disputes, he resigns and joins the staff of an exclusive private hospital in Chicago. Finally, Arrowsmith is recognized by his former medical school mentor, Max Gottlieb, for a scientific paper he has written and is invited to take a post with a prestigious research institute in New York. The book's climax deals with Arrowsmith's discovery of a phage that destroys bacteria and his experiences as he faces an outbreak of bubonic plague on a fictional Caribbean island.

His scientific principles demand that he avoid mass use of phage on the Island. Rigorous scientific understanding of the phage is more important than any lives on the Island lost due to lack of treatment. After his wife, Leora, and all the other people who came with him from the institute to the island die of plague, he reluctantly abandons rigorous science and begins to treat everyone on the island with the phage. While on the island, he becomes romantically involved with a wealthy socialite whom he later marries. He considers his actions on the island to have been a complete betrayal of science and his principles.

After his return to New York, he is treated as a public hero for his actions on the island. He is first promoted within the lab and then offered the directorship of the entire institute. He turns down the promotion. He abandons his new wife and infant son to work in the backwoods of Vermont as an entirely independent scientist. When his wife finally offers to move to Vermont to be close to him, he tells her that he wants nothing to do with her and she should just go away.


The book contains considerable social commentary on the state and prospects of medicine in the United States in the 1920s. Arrowsmith is a progressive, even something of a rebel, and often challenges the existing state of things when he finds it wanting.

This novel has been inspirational for several generations of pre-medical and medical students. There is much agonizing along the way concerning career and life decisions. While detailing Arrowsmith'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 Arrowsmith'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 Arrowsmith himself is exasperatingly self-involved. But there is also tireless dedication, and respect for the scientific method and intellectual honesty.

Martin Arrowsmith shares some biographical elements with Félix d'Herelle, who is identified in the novel as a co-discoverer of the bacteriophage and represented as having beaten Arrowsmith into publication with his results. Because of the detailed and gripping portrayal of experimental laboratory research as a practice, a profession, an ideology, a worldview, a “prominent strand in modern culture, a way of life”,[2] Arrowsmith is generally acknowledged as a classic 'science novel', focusing on moral dilemmas bio-medical researchers may encounter [3]

Arrowsmith has been compared with The Citadel by A. J. Cronin (first published after Arrowsmith in 1937), which also deals with the life experiences of a young idealistic doctor who tries to challenge and improve the existing system of medical practice.

De Kruif drew inspiration for locations and characters in Arrowsmith from specific sources. The labwork and experimental process of Max Gottlieb was based on the careers of Frederick George Novy and Jacques Loeb. Loeb and De Kruif both worked at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York and Novy was De Kruif's longtime mentor.[4]

A writer in Public Health Reports commented in 2001 that the novel predicted many of the successes and problems affecting today's medical profession, such as the competing needs and goals of clinicians and medical scientists; commercial interests of pharmaceutical companies developing new medications and vaccines versus the need to seek for scientific truth; political and social difficulties in developing programs for protecting a community's public health; and the doctor's evolving role in American society.[5]

Pulitzer Prize

Arrowsmith was awarded the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but Lewis declined the award. In a letter to the committee, he wrote:

I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.[6]

The New York Times reported that according to observers, the real reason was that Lewis was still upset that Main Street did not win the prize in 1921.[7]

Film, radio and television adaptations

The book's only theatrically released adaptation was the film Arrowsmith in 1931, featuring Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes as Arrowsmith and Leora respectively. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay.

Lux Radio Theater presented a one-hour radio adaptation on October 25, 1937, starring Spencer Tracy and Fay Wray.[8][9]

Helen Hayes reprised her role as Leora in an hour-long adaptation on The Campbell Playhouse radio program along with Orson Welles as Arrowsmith. The program aired on February 3, 1939.[10]

Cavalcade of America presented a version on February 23, 1942 with Tyrone Power in the title role.

In the 1950s and '60s, the book was adapted several times for television, and condensed versions of the story were produced for such television shows as Kraft Television Theater and DuPont Show of the Month.

A Czech mini-series was produced in 1999, with Jan Stastny in the titular role and Tereza Brodská as "Leora Tozerova".

It is a popular myth that the rock band Aerosmith took its name from this book. Although the members were required to read this book in school, they have repeatedly and adamantly denied any connection. In fact, the name was initially rejected because they thought drummer Joey Kramer got the name from the Lewis novel. When he explained the different spelling and that the name came to him while listening to Harry Nilsson's album Aerial Ballet, the name was accepted by the other members.[11]


  1. Fangerau 2006.
  2. Schorer M. (1961) Sinclair Lewis: an American life. New York / Toronto / London: McGraw-Hill., p. 414
  3. Zwart H. (2015) Phage ethics. A ‘depth’ bioethical reading of Sinclair Lewis’s science novel Arrowsmith. In: Huxtable R, Meulen R. ter (eds.) The voices and Rooms of European Bioethics. Routledge, pp. 53-71.
  4. Lingeman 2005, p. 206, 206, 222.
  5. Reflections on Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith: the great American novel of public health and medicine, Howard Markel, MD, PhD, Public Health Chronicles in Public Health Reports, July/August 2001, vol.116, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  6. Sinclair Lewis Society FAQ2.
  7. McDowell, Edwin (1984-05-11). "Publishing: Pulitzer Controversies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  8. Lux Radio Theater 54 - Arrowsmith - 1937/10/18
  9. Lux Radio Theater #147 Oct 25, 1937 - Arrowsmith - ComicBookPlus
  10. "The Campbell Playhouse: Arrowsmith". Orson Welles on the Air, 1938–1946. Indiana University Bloomington. February 3, 1939. Retrieved 2018-07-29.
  11. Davis, Stephen (1997). Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith. New York.: HarperCollins. pp. 106–107. ISBN 978-0-380-97594-5.
  • Fangerau, H. M. (2006). "The novel Arrowsmith, Paul de Kruif (1890–1971) and Jacques Loeb (1859–1924): A literary portrait of "medical science"". Medical Humanities. 32 (2): 82–87. doi:10.1136/jmh.2006.000230. PMID 23673799.
  • Lingeman, Richard R. (2005). Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. St. Paul, Minn: Borealis Books. ISBN 978-0-87351-541-2.
  • "Why did Sinclair Lewis decline the Pulitzer Prize?". The Sinclair Lewis Society. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
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