chapter  6
20 Pages

Phage-ethics: a ‘depth’ bioethical reading of Sinclair Lewis’s science novel Arrowsmith


Arrowsmith (published in 1925) is an intriguing novel for various reasons, and may be read from various perspectives. 1 My personal fascination with this 500-page romance stems from the fact that it is often regarded as the first real science novel , devoted to experimental laboratory research as a practice, a profession, an ideology, a worldview, a ‘prominent strand in modern culture’ (Schorer, 1961: 414), a way of life. 2 Named after its key protagonist Martin Arrowsmith, it records an important event in the history of biomedicine: the discovery of the ‘bacterium-eating’ virus, the bacteriophage. But it also addresses a moral ambivalence that runs through biomedicine as a research field, namely the tension between the exacting demands of ‘pure’ research, on the one hand, and its various (more or less benevolent) applications in medical practice, on the other. The novel stages a series of dramatic moral conflicts between the duties of Martin Arrowsmith as a physician (working for the benefit of his patients) and as a researcher (working for the benefit of future generations, of ‘humankind’). Thus, Arrowsmith serves as a paradigm of a whole genre, and Lewis’s lively descriptions of science communication, priority conflicts, funding strategies, research ethics and laboratory rivalries are still relevant today. First and foremost, however, the novel allows us to discern how, beneath biomedicine’s manifest aspiration to promote human well-being, there is a ‘deeper’ impulse, a disconcerting obsession at work that may prove highly disruptive, not only for test animals, research subjects and patients, but also for the scientists themselves. Biomedicine’s fuelling desire, its cupido sciendi (its ‘will to know’) is not predominantly to save, but rather to control life, and the aim of a ‘depth bioethical’ reading is to bring this subliminal dimension to the surface.