Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nobel Laureate: Sinclair Lewis


The Nobel Prize in Literature 1930.
"for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters"

Sinclair Lewis (1885 - 1951) won the Noble Prize in Literature for his novels about average Americans doing non-average things. The prize committee specifically mentions Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth.

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Arrowsmith is a novel about a scientist. It is one of the first works of the 20th century to describe the realities of being a scientist and really should be required reading for all science students. Lewis relied heavily on his scientific adviser, the microbiologist Paul de Kruif, and the novel is based loosely on Félix d'Herelle. Here's how the novel is described in the presentation speech on the Nobel Prize website.

Nobel Laureates
Arrowsmith (1925) is a work of a more serious nature. Lewis has there attempted to represent the medical profession and science in all its manifestations. As is well known, American research in the natural sciences, physics, chemistry, and medicine ranks with the best of our age, and it has several times been recognized as such from this very platform. Tremendous resources have been placed at its command. Richly endowed institutions work unceasingly on its development.

That even here some speculative persons want to take advantage of their opportunities may be regarded as inevitable. Private industries are on the alert for scientific discoveries and want to profit from them before they have been tested and finally established. The bacteriologist, for instance, searches with infinite care for vaccines to cure widespread diseases, and the manufacturing chemist wants to snatch them prematurely from his hand for mass production.

Under the guidance of a gifted and conscientious teacher, Martin Arrowsmith develops into one of the idealists of science. The tragedy of his life as research worker is that, after making an important discovery, he delays its announcement for constantly renewed tests until he is anticipated by a Frenchman in the Pasteur Institute.

The book contains a rich gallery of different medical types. We have the hum of the medical schools with their quarrelling and intriguing professors. Then there is the unpretentious country doctor, recalled from Main Street, who regards it as an honour to merge with his clientele and become their support and solace. Then we have the shrewd organizer of public health and general welfare, who works himself into popular favour and political power. Next we have the large institutes with their apparently royally independent investigators, under a management which to a certain extent must take into consideration the commercial interests of the donors and drive the staff to forced work for the honour of the institutes.

Above these types rises Arrowsmith's teacher, the exiled German Jew, Gottlieb, who is drawn with a warmth and admiration that seem to suggest a living model. He is an incorruptibly honest servant of science, but at the same time a resentful anarchist and a stand-offish misanthrope, who doubts whether the humanity whose benefactor he is amounts to as much as the animals he kills with his experiments. Further we meet the Swedish doctor, Gustaf Sondelius, a radiant Titan, who with singing and courage pursues pests in their lairs throughout the world, exterminates poisonous rats and burns infected villages, drinks and preaches his gospel that hygiene is destined to kill the medical art.

Alongside all of this runs the personal history of Martin Arrowsmith. Lewis is much too clever to make his characters without blemish, and Martin suffers from faults which at times seem obstructive to his development, both as a man and as a scientist. As a restless and irresolute young man he gets his best help from a little woman he encountered at a hospital where she was an insignificant nurse. When he begins to drift about the country as an unsuccessful medical student, he looks her up in a little village in the Far West, and there she becomes his wife. She is a devoted and simple soul, who demands nothing and who patiently waits in her solitude when, bewitched by the siren of science, her husband loses himself in the labyrinths of his work.

Later she accompanies him and Sondelius to the plague-infected island where Arrowsmith wants to test his serum. Her death in the abandoned hut, while her husband listens distractedly to another and more earthy siren than that of science, seems like a poetically crowning final act to a life of primitive self-sacrificing femininity.

The book is full of admirable learning, certified by experts as being accurate. Though a master of light-winged words, Lewis is never superficial when it comes to the foundations of his art. His study of details is always as careful and thorough as that of such a scientist as Arrowsmith or Gottlieb. In this work he has built a monument to the profession of his own father, that of the physician, which certainly is not represented by a charlatan or a faker.


  1. I had a girlfriend once who called me "Arrowsmith" and have always thought that the book should be required reading for anyone who intended to go to medical school, or do science.

  2. If you can find it (it's not on or William Cooper's The Trials of Albert Woods is a very accurate picture of the life of a young organic chemist. His later novels Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Married Life were far better known.

  3. You surely mist have read "Microbe Hunters" by DeKruif, which started off many a Nobel laureate on his scientific trajectory

  4. Ashutosh asks,

    You surely mist have read "Microbe Hunters" by DeKruif, which started off many a Nobel laureate on his scientific trajectory

    No, I haven't read it and I wasn't even aware of the book until I looked up de Kruif a few days ago.

    Do you recommend it?