Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Life in Medicine


"The boy, normal village youngster though he was, given to stoning cats and to playing pom-pom-pullaway, gained something of the intoxication of treasure-hunting as the Doc struggled to convey his vision of the pride of learning, the universality of biology, the triumphant exactness of chemistry. A fat old man and dirty and unvirtuous was the Doc; his grammar was doubtful, his vocabulary alarming, and his references to his rival, good Dr. Needham, were scandalous; yet he invoked in Martin a vision of making chemicals explode with much noise and stink and of seeing animalcules that no boy in Elk Mills had ever beheld." (Chapter 1, p. 5)

Arrowsmith is primarily a novel of social commentary on the state of and prospects for medicine in the United States in the 1920s. The protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith, is something of a rebel, and often challenges the existing state of things when he finds it wanting.  
However he engages in much agonizing along the way concerning his 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. In addition he is disappointed that his wife is not better suited to partner with him in his success. 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. His derailment from his ideals, while differing in the details, reminds me a bit of Lydgate in Middlemarch.  
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 both personal and 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. The result is an engaging novel that deserved the Pulitzer which the author rejected.

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Judith said...

I read Arrowsmith as an older teen and loved the medical aspects, though I was somewhat horrified to realize, and to recognize, the slimy underbelly of the profession. At the time I was considering a career in medicine, but a stint working in a hospital cured me of that notion.

Thanks for your review and the reminder,

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

James said...


Thanks for your comment. Lewis's specialty was depicting the dark side of human nature whether in business, religion or small towns (see Babbit, Elmer Gantry, and Main Street, respectively). The last one is my favorite, the rest I read for style.