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Arrowsmith | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith | Plot Summary

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Early Life

As the novel opens young Martin Arrowsmith is the unofficial assistant to the doctor of the town of Elk Mills. Though Doc Vickerson is not the most admirable of medical practitioners, he inspires Martin to pursue medicine as a vocation. Martin goes off to university and then on to medical school at the fictitious University of Winnemac. In his first years of medical school he develops an intense admiration for one of the professors at the school, Professor Max Gottlieb, a bacteriologist focused on laboratory research. After his first year of medical school he becomes Gottlieb's assistant. His plans for the future include becoming a laboratory researcher, not a practicing doctor. He sees that many of his fellow medical students and some professors seem more interested in making money than treating patients. This causes him to rail against the commercialism of the medical profession and become even more focused on laboratory research, which he sees as less commercial. He also becomes engaged to two women—first Madeline Fox and then Leora Tozer (Leora Arrowsmith).

Small-Town Doctor

After graduation Martin Arrowsmith does his internship at a nearby hospital, and he and Leora get married. They move to the small town of Wheatsylvania, Leora's Arrowsmith's hometown in North Dakota, and Martin sets up his first practice. He has some successes and some failures, but throughout his years there he is constantly beleaguered by Leora's family and the other townsfolk. They are quick to find fault, gossip nonstop, and seem to revel in his mistakes. His relationship with Leora is mostly happy. However, she has a difficult pregnancy that ends in a stillbirth and infertility, introducing a note of sorrow into their lives. He also becomes interested in public health.

Eventually Martin and Leora move to Nautilus, a moderately sized city. He gets a job working for Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh, who is the doctor in charge of public health. Though Martin is glad to get out of the small-town atmosphere of Wheatsylvania, the job in Nautilus is not a good fit. He soon moves on to the Rouncefield Clinic in Chicago. There, he works with Angus Duer, a rival from medical school. However, once again he becomes dissatisfied with his job; he feels his coworkers are too focused on making money.


Meanwhile, Martin Arrowsmith's old mentor, Max Gottlieb, loses his job at the university and takes a research job with a large pharmaceutical company. He makes a breakthrough discovery but leaves the company when he refuses to consent to patenting his discovery. He goes to work at the McGurk Research Institute in New York. He offers Martin a job doing research at McGurk, and Martin is thrilled to accept. While at McGurk, Martin develops a new treatment for the plague, and he goes to St. Hubert, an island where the plague is running rampant. His treatment shows promise, but to test it he must treat only some of the patients. In the midst of this situation his wife, Leora Arrowsmith, dies of plague. Ultimately, his research is promising but not conclusive.

After Leora's death and a time of grieving, Martin meets another woman, Joyce Lanyon (Joyce Arrowsmith), and the two marry. They have a child. But the marriage is unsatisfying for Martin, and he leaves. He joins forces with a coworker from the McGurk Institute, Terry Wickett. They plan to build their own lab in order to do scientific research without the constraints of commercialism.

Arrowsmith Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Martin Arrowsmith enters the University of Winnemac.

Rising Action

2 Martin becomes Max Gottlieb's assistant.

3 Martin marries Leora Tozer (Leora Arrowsmith).

4 Gottlieb invites Martin to work at McGurk.

5 Martin goes to St. Hubert to study the plague; Leora dies.

6 Martin marries Joyce Lanyon (Joyce Arrowsmith).


7 Martin leaves Joyce to live with Terry Wickett in the woods.

Falling Action

8 Joyce wants to build a house near him in Vermont.


9 Martin refuses, dedicating his life to scientific research.

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