The Michigan scientist who was ‘Arrowsmith’
When the new novel Arrowsmith reached the nation’s bookstores in 1925, the author, Sinclair Lewis, was already the most celebrated American writer of the day.
His novel Main Street (1920), a poignant satire of small-town America, had marked him as a major talent.
Then came Babbitt (1922), a meticulous dissection of middle-class conformity that had made Lewis famous.
Now the early reviews of Arrowsmith promised more renown. It was the first major American novel to feature a scientist in the leading role. That was an unlikely focus for a bestseller. But it was also a page-turner, a romance, a satire and a philosophical meditation on the tension between truth and good works.
It leaped to the first rank on bestseller lists. Critics declared that Lewis, once a scribbler of racy tales for mass-market magazines, had reached full maturity as an artist.
What neither Lewis nor his publishers said — at least not very loudly — was how much Arrowsmith owed to an obscure young scientist and what he had told Lewis about life in the medical labs of the University of Michigan.
Their friendship was short, stormy, and profitable.
From Paul De Kruif (rhymes with life), Sinclair Lewis got facts and insights for a novel good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize (though Lewis turned it down) and to inspire generations of doctors and scientists.
From Lewis, De Kruif learned how to tell a story. He missed out on the credit he deserved for Arrowsmith. But by virtue of his accidental apprenticeship to Lewis, he was set up for his own pioneering career as a writer.
A strange ambition
Born in 1890, Paul De Kruif had grown up in the Dutch-American village of Zeeland near Holland, Mich. His father, a seller of farm equipment, hoped his son would become a doctor or lawyer. His mother read Mark Twain and George Eliot and encouraged her son to read widely, study hard, and ask questions.
He entered U-M in 1908 as a pre-med student. When he read about the German physician-scientist Paul Ehrlich, who had explored the hidden world of microbes to discover a cure for syphilis, De Kruif changed his major. By 1916 he had a PhD from U-M in microbiology.
Striding through the old Medical Building on East University, he made a powerful impression. He looked more like a Viking out of costume than a lab rat. He was tall, jug-eared, and ruggedly handsome, with a thick outdoorsman’s trunk and an air of brawny energy. He had a bent for hero worship, and at Michigan he found a hero who would shape his life.
This was Frederick Novy (1864-1957), a new sort of figure in America’s medical schools. Novy was a pure scientist, not a physician. He had studied with Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, the founders of microbiology. He was among the first American medical professors to probe the secrets of living beings whether they would lead to medical cures or not.
According to his biographer, Powel H. Kazanjian (professor of both internal medicine and history at U-M), Novy’s students learned “a comprehensive code that included a duty to search for truths in nature above all competing motives and the adoption of disciplined, methodical work habits.”
De Kruif was one of many who came to see Novy as a secular saint, a model of scientific integrity and zeal. The two worked closely as mentor and disciple.
De Kruif gloried in the routines of the lab. Neglecting his first wife, he worked day and night, stopping only for an occasional plunge in the Huron, then racing back to his test tubes.
“That grubby den of research reeked of guinea pigs, white rats, and rabbits,” he later wrote. “In the primitive days of one’s work with Novy one raced three flights down to the basement and back up with wire baskets teeming with guinea pigs and battery jars alive with white rats …
“At Ann Arbor one burned one’s hands, blowing one’s own glassware for complex apparatus, and one washed one’s own test tubes and cooked the culture medium to feed one’s microbes. At Ann Arbor science was do-it-yourself.”
World War I interrupted. De Kruif spent two years in the U.S. Sanitary Corps trying to develop an antidote to poison-gas attacks.
Then he returned to Ann Arbor. Soon his work with Novy attracted the offer of a position at the prestigious Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) in New York. He accepted.At Rockefeller he met the renowned German-American biologist Jacques Loeb, another pure scientist, who lampooned physicians as mere mechanics of the human body. (“‘Medical science’?” Loeb remarked one day. “That is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing.”)
De Kruif was close to making his own major name in microbiology. But he conceived a strange new ambition, for a scientist. He wanted to explain science to a broad popular audience as a journalist.
Again he aimed high, writing for advice to the iconoclastic editor and critic H.L. Mencken, who saw literary promise in the young scientist’s letter. Mencken recruited him to write an article that would cast America’s mainstream “medicine men” in a deeply unflattering light. It was published anonymously, but word of De Kruif’s authorship got out. His Rockefeller bosses fired him.
Jobless and nearly broke, he put all his chips on a writing career and set off on a new topic — the unholy connections between MDs and drug manufacturers.
Then came his luckiest day.
“An unearthly character”
In Chicago for research near the end of 1922, De Kruif met Dr. Morris Fishbein, soon to be editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who happened to be in the company of — as De Kruif put it later — “a young red-headed man, very tall and slightly stooped, nervous, his face spotty red as if about to explode into a dermatosis … wild, freewheeling, intense, outlandish.”
This “unearthly character,” De Kruif learned, was none other than Sinclair Lewis, author of the mega-bestseller Main Street, apparently half-toasted though the sun had not yet set. He, too, was considering a book on the underside of American medicine.
After an uproarious night on the town, Lewis and De Kruif retired to Lewis’ hotel, where the novelist turned deadly serious, “every inch a writing pro,” asking “a hundred canny questions.”
“He cross-examined me about why I’d left medicine for research on viruses, spirochetes, tripanosomes, and anaphylaxis under austere Frederick Novy,” De Kruif reported. “His questioning stirred me to make Professor Novy come alive, a figure of medical romance — our lab window the only one lighted far into the night in the medical building at Ann Arbor.”
Finally Lewis asked: How about if the two of them collaborated on a satirical novel about medicine and science? The hero could be a man like De Kruif himself, an idealistic, stubborn young scientist intoxicated by the search for truth. There could be a major character like Novy, a medical school like Michigan’s, and a cast of minor characters drawn from De Kruif’s life.
De Kruif, flabbergasted, said that sounded fine.
Lewis brought DeKruif to New York to meet his publishers, Alfred Harcourt and Donald Brace. Though “not a word of it had yet got down on paper,” De Kruif recalled, Lewis talked through the outline of a long novel, a modern-day fable, “a saga … informed with the spirit of medical discovery, with a handsome, stubborn-minded young medical scientist the embattled hero.”
The publishers liked it. No one had done a big novel about medicine before.Now Lewis made his pitch for DeKruif as co-author. The kid knew all the scientific dope the novel would need, he told the publishers, and he had great instincts for telling a story. Hell, it was going to be his story — the wide-eyed country boy pursuing scientific truth in a profession of medical Babbitts. So the cover should say “By Sinclair Lewis and Paul De Kruif” and the earnings should be split 50-50.
That wasn’t fair, De Kruif put in. Lewis had the big name and the talent. De Kruif should only get 25 percent of the earnings.
The publishers agreed to the terms — a 75/25 split of the money and equal credit on the cover — for the moment.
De Kruif recalled that Harcourt, “out of his shrewd, sharp eyes, gave me a long look. It was not unkindly.”
“What’s on the floor of stables”
Lewis had evolved a method for developing a novel. First, he would sketch the book’s basic shape in his mind. Then he would research factual details, often taking a trip to do so. Next, he would write a highly detailed outline, sometimes half as long as the novel itself. Then he would draft the novel in a sprint. Finally, he would drop his pace to a crawl for a painstaking revision.
Lewis had imagined his hero fighting an epidemic in the tropics. So for his research trip, he decided on a cruise of the Caribbean aboard a rusty cargo steamer with De Kruif along to help him do his planning.
Lewis was itching to get going, but De Kruif said he couldn’t yet. He was scheduled to marry Rhea Barbarin, a former student of his at U-M, a native of Freeland, Mich., a small town near Saginaw. They had put off the wedding for many months as De Kruif waited for his divorce to be final, and they had a honeymoon planned.
But Lewis said he couldn’t wait so long. He pressured De Kruif to cut his plans short; after the wedding, he could bring Rhea east for a quick holiday before the working cruise to the Caribbean.
So De Kruif persuaded Rhea that the famous author, whose Midas touch might bring De Kruif his own chance at writing success, must be accommodated.
In New York, disillusionment awaited both De Kruifs.
Right away, Lewis took Paul aside to say Harcourt had deep-sixed the plan to list them as equal co-authors.
“Alf dopes it out this way,” Lewis said. “If the critics and the book buyers see Lewis and De Kruif on the cover, they’ll say Lewis is finished. He’s hiring an unknown to help write his book for him.”
“This sounded,” De Kruif wrote later, “like what’s on the floors of stables.”
What about the plan to split the money 75-25? he asked. That still stood, Lewis replied. So De Kruif swallowed his pride.
Late that night, drunk as usual, Lewis edged close to Rhea De Kruif. His own wife had gone off to bed. As De Kruif looked on, he wrote later, Lewis “began at first surreptitiously and then openly to try what could only be called necking” with Rhea. She froze and the writer backed off. De Kruif chose to overlook it.
Thereafter, as if nothing had happened, Lewis treated Rhea with respectful friendliness — and used her as the model for Leora Arrowsmith, the admirable and long-suffering wife of his new protagonist.
Days later, with that ugly moment as preamble, De Kruif boarded S.S. Guiana with Lewis, and the herculean task of planning a major novel began.
Read on at The Heritage Project.
Sources included Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith (1925); Paul De Kruif, A Sweeping Wind (1962); James M. Hutchisson, The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920-1930 (1996); Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (2005); Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961); Howard Markel, “Reflections on Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Arrowsmith’: The Great American Novel of Public Health and Medicine,” Public Health Reports 116:4 (July-August 2001); Robin Marantz Henig, “The Life and Legacy of Paul De Kruif,” Alicia Patterson Foundation (2002); Powel H. Kazanjian, Frederick Novy and the Development of Bacteriology in Medicine (2017).