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Literature Study GuidesArrowsmithChapters 17 18 Summary

Arrowsmith | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith | Chapters 17–18 | Summary



Chapter 17

In Part 1 two doctors in the Wheatsylvania area, Dr. Coughlin and Dr. Tromp, discuss the medical profession. They gossip about other doctors, including Martin Arrowsmith, whom they say is smart and freethinking but also a drinker who never attends church. In Part 2 Bert Tozer tells Martin that Dr. Coughlin is spreading rumors that Martin's a drunk. Martin again feels the pressure of living in a town where people all seem to watch each other.

In Part 3 a disease called blackleg is going around the cattle in the county. Martin learns that the vaccine being used is a Hunziker version and decides to test it for effectiveness. It turns out to be ineffective. So he sets out to make a better one, and though he succeeds he receives more criticism than praise. However, Martin learns that Gustaf Sondelius will be giving a lecture in Minneapolis. This lifts his spirits, and he decides to go.

In Part 4 Martin travels to Minneapolis. In Part 5 he attends the lecture. Sondelius begins the lecture by saying "[t]he medical profession can have but one desire: to destroy the medical profession." Then he proceeds to tell about his travels and the diseases he has combated around the world. Martin is inspired. He stays after the lecture, and the two get a drink together. During their conversation Martin mentions Max Gottlieb and learns that Sondelius admires the bacteriologist a great deal.

Chapter 18

In Part 1 Dr. Woestijne, superintendent of health, gives Martin a job as a health officer for the county. This makes Martin even less popular than before. When he determines that an elderly seamstress is a carrier for typhoid, he sequesters her in the "segregation ward." Leora Arrowsmith takes up a collection and raises enough to have the seamstress sent away to a larger hospital for treatment. Then, he thinks several cases of chickenpox are smallpox and raises the alarm. When all but one of the cases is determined to be chickenpox, he is mocked. Furthermore, no one listens to him when he tells them diphtheria is going around and they should get vaccinated. Several people die, but people still don't pay attention to him. He finally tells Leora he can't stand it and needs to get out of Wheatsylvania.

In Part 2 Martin writes to Gustaf Sondelius asking if he knows of any jobs in public health. Two days later Sondelius writes back. Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh, director of public health in Nautilus, Iowa, is hiring. Martin gets the job. Both he and Leora Arrowsmith are overjoyed to be moving away from Wheatsylvania. In Part 3 the people of Wheatsylvania criticize Martin for moving away, claiming they've treated him extraordinarily well and appreciated his medical skills immensely.


Chapters 17 and 18 read like a long joke with the punchline "Why, Doc, you ain't going to leave us?" The satirical tone is readily apparent in these chapters, directed at the small-town residents of Wheatsylvania and other towns nearby. The other doctors in the area gossip about Martin Arrowsmith and spread criticisms of his drinking. Martin cures blackleg only to be criticized by both doctors and veterinarians. The veterinarians are mad that he's infringed on their professional territory; the doctors think he's demeaning the medical profession by doing veterinary work.

For a moment it seems that Martin might have found a good fit in working as a health officer. Unfortunately, this just leads to more criticism in the community. Even though this position has more to do with bacteriology than being a practicing doctor, he is still making decisions that affect people's lives. This leaves the door open to critics—and they are merciless. They begrudge him any victory, like stopping the spread of typhoid. In fact, they seem to view quarantining the typhoid carrier as an unnecessary act of cruelty. And they revel in his failures, such as misdiagnosing chickenpox as smallpox. The citizens' mistrust of and opposition to Martin has fatal consequences: when diphtheria goes around people die because they won't listen to his advice. It is a downward, disheartening spiral.

The situation also returns to the idea that Martin has very little bedside manner—a fault that he recognized during his internship. Martin has the medical and bacteriological knowledge to help people, but he lacks the people skills to earn and keep their trust.

In any case, when Martin finally can't take it and decides to move on, the town's reaction is comical. Henry Novak asks "Why, Doc, you ain't going to leave us?" One man offers to help him run for state senator. The entire town comes to see Martin and Leora Arrowsmith off at the train station. All the love seems to wipe the negative memories from Martin's mind for a little while. As the train moves away from the station, he becomes nostalgic though his better sense prevails: "I feel like getting off and going back."

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