Arrowsmith
Upton Sinclair
Harcourt Brace & Co., 1925

 

As a youth, Martin Arrowsmith, the protagonist of Arrowsmith, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis (1925), is hooked when he has the opportunity to observe medicine (as practiced by an old country doctor in his tiny Midwestern hometown), and he decides to become a physician. He is a normal, decent human being who conducts his life according to a confusion of incompatible standards. As a pre-med student in 1904, for instance, he experiences two crushes—on girls and on pure science, and he becomes engaged to two girls at the same time. He also commences a life-long pattern of vacillation between his love of pure science (which is less remunerative than practicing medicine) and his desire to be wealthy and esteemed.

Although disinclined to study philosophy and the liberal arts, Martin is a thinking man. He attempts to do the right thing, but sometimes he has difficulty determining what the right thing is, and sometimes he knowingly does wrong. As a medical student, he faces an ethical conundrum—even as he pursues his intellectual passion in pure science, he is forced to question the wisdom of this endeavor: for, were science ever to succeed in immunizing every person against every known pathogen, the triumph of humanity would be short-lived—because the newly immuno-depleted human race would be altogether eradicated by the next germ to emerge. In the end, science cannot protect humanity from infections entirely.

As a new doctor, while Martin takes his duty to heal seriously, he makes honest mistakes from time to time. Some of his mistakes are the result of faulty reasoning and bad guesses, but often he commits blunders out of his personal weaknesses. Many of the regrettable decisions he makes, in both his personal life and in his practice of medicine, are the result of his anxiety over the opinions of other people. The esteem and social position for which he yearns are seldom the rewards of researchers unseen in laboratories, and seldom the rewards of scrupulous honesty.

This well-intentioned, very fallible young man is initiated into the political dimensions of public health, the profit motives of pharmaceutical research (i.e., the patenting of life-saving drugs, rather than the free sharing of the formulae), the manipulation of statistics by officials and corporations, bribery and kickbacks, and the “Old-Boy” professional network—all of which threaten the honest, disinterested delivery of health care. Martin is perpetually faced with deciding between a right and a wrong course; he does, at times, rise briefly to the level of heroism. He does this—not by always making the right decision—but by sometimes rejecting rationalization and submitting to honest self-examination and owning up to his shortcomings. But he is not always honest with either himself or others.

When he is called upon to apply the fruits of his science to a plague of The Plague, the reader can substitute the WHO, CDC, Presidents Trump and Biden, Dr. Fauci, et al., for Lewis’s characters and see our current situation played out a century ago. In this time, when the refrain chanted so often by institutional authorities—“Trust Science”—is resounded ad nauseum every place one turns, Arrowsmith provides the reader with a poignant reminder that the members of the scientific community and of the medical profession are as fallibly human and self-interested as the rest of us. Ultimately, trusting science is simply trusting people.

Katherine Kerestman holds a B.A. degree from John Carroll University and a Master of Arts degree from Case Western Reserve University. She loves to travel, especially to destinations with literary and macabre associations, including Transylvania, Whitby, Salem, and Stonehenge. She has joined her literary, historical and macabre proclivities together into her first non-fiction title, Creepy Cat’s Macabre Travels.