My Favorite Novel
By Glenn T. Seaborg
Not long ago, on a National Public Radio program featuring a number of Nobel Prize recipients from various disciplines, we were asked to name our favorite books. Many of the guests took some time to answer, but I knew what my response would be immediately. I told them that my favorite book, the one that had inspired me to become a scientist, was Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, first published in 1925. I read this book in my late teens, in my first years of college, and was deeply struck by its story and message.
Sinclair Lewis was one of the leading American novelists of the early 20th century, known as a "muckraker" and social critic whose mammoth novels, like those of Theodore Dreiser, were not only popular literature but keen social commentary.
For those of you not familiar with this book, it tells the story of Martin Arrowsmith, who begins as a doctor, then becomes a scientific researcher at a large medical institute, modeled after the Rockefeller Institute, at that time the pre-eminent biological research facility in the United States. The book is all about the practice of science, from its visionary dreams to its sometime harsh realities, from its Petri dishes and persevering labors, to its glories and transcendent moments filled with the joy of discovery. It is filled with detailed laboratory practice, accurate for its time period, thanks to Lewis' close collaboration with Paul de Kruif, a leading researcher of the time and author of the classic and inspiring book on the battle of science against disease, Microbe Hunters.
In what could also be an apt description of the heart of many of the programs in science and math education, Sinclair Lewis describes an essential attribute of Martin Arrowsmith, the scientist, as he starts his career: "With all his amateurish fumbling, Martin had one characteristic without which there can be no science: a wide-ranging, sniffing, snuffling, undignified, unselfdramatizing curiosity, and it drove him on."
For Martin, life is a constant learning process, both positive and negative, as he encounters several great scientists with principles and integrity, but also comes face to face with meddling bureaucrats, corruption, and deliberate experimental falsification. He works feverishly in his lab, close to discovering an anti-toxin for many stomach bacilli.
The top administrators hear of his work and dangle a high level job, fame, and power in front of him, but a French scientist publishes comparable and more developed findings first. A major ethical issue (among many) arises in the latter part of the book, as Martin, supposed to be carefully testing a vaccine on a Caribbean island, finds himself in the midst of a deadly epidemic and abandons his controlled experiments to give his vaccine freely to the population. Although the spread of the epidemic is halted and he is hailed as a savior, the vaccine's effectiveness is still unproved. Other preventative measures that were taken, such as the eradication of rodents who spread the disease, may have been responsible. It's back to the laboratory for more tests and more challenges.
Pondering the ethics of his actions, Martin Arrowsmith thinks to himself, that those "who have never had the experience of trying, in the midst of an epidemic, to remain calm and keep experimental conditions, do not realize in the security of their laboratories what one has to contend with." The book ends on a note that echoes the trial-and-error joy of scientific investigation, as Martin chats with a fellow researcher: "I feel as if I were really beginning to work now. . .This new quinine stuff may prove pretty good. We'll plug along on it for two or three years, and maybe we'll get something permanent—and probably we'll fail!"
As the book reviewers are fond of saying, this is a "big and sprawling" novel, and no capsule description can do it justice. At the time I read it, I was drawn less by its depiction of social and ethical conflict than by its sheer exuberance about the scientific journey of discovery.
I remember being deeply moved by this spirit, and if I had to name any one book that inspired and confirmed in me that science was the direction I intended my life to take, it would be Arrowsmith.
While some of the language and cultural context may be dated, the vibrancy of the plot and characters stands the test of time. I find it interesting, for example, that Sinclair Lewis' concern about science and ethics in the early part of the century has become paramount in the nuclear age, as well as embedded in the complex issues attendant upon the environment, biotechnology, genetic engineering, medical transplants, human and animal experimentation, and a host of other places where science meets society.
What Sinclair Lewis explored at the start of the century remains just as relevant today, as we roll inexorably toward the next millennium. He describes, and students can experience, the joy of scientific discovery, the realities of scientific investigation, and the ways scientists work together to advance knowledge.
In a time when there is an urgent need for young people of all backgrounds to gain skills and knowledge in scientific, mathematical, and technological fields, it can be of great value for students to understand more about what these careers involve. As the complex issues at the intersection of science and society increasingly raise ethical and social concerns that in turn demand informed decisions based on authentic scientific literacy, we hope that new curricula will make some small contribution to the empowerment of students—who are, after all, the decision-makers of the near future.