Feb. 7 marks the 130th birthday of Sinclair Lewis, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. At first glance, one might ask what does an American novelist have to do with a column devoted to medical discoveries and great medical events? Well, when considering he helped initiate our popular culture’s fascination with doctors and science, this all but forgotten, the best-selling writer’s birthday has a great deal to do with modern medical progress. In 1925, Sinclair Lewis published “Arrowsmith,” the first novel ever devoted to the life and adventures of a medical scientist. His Pulitzer Prize winning book brilliantly tells the story of a physician’s relentless search for truth. Unlike other novels of the Roaring Twenties, let alone the decades before, the main character, Martin Arrowsmith is neither a soldier nor a misunderstood artist, although he does engage in the occasional drunken binge. Martin is not even a great medical doctor.
Instead, Lewis, who was acutely aware of the wide public interest in all the new medical discoveries then being made, introduced millions of readers to a young man who dedicates himself to the hottest scientific field of his day: bacteriology.