The mythical state of Winnemac, bounded by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, is half Eastern, half Midwestern, with Zenith, its largest city, surrounded by fields of corn and wheat. The University of Winnemac is at Mohalis and has a student body of twelve thousand. Young doctors of philosophy give rapid instruction in courses ranging from Sanskrit to department-store advertising. Graduates of the university, both men and women, are expected to "lead moral lives, play bridge, drive good cars, be enterprising in business, and occasionally to mention books, though they are not expected to have read them."
When Martin Arrowsmith enters Winnemac University in 1904 at the age of twenty-one, he is one of only five thousand students. Doc Vickerson is dead and so are Martin's parents, who have left him barely
enough money to finance his medical education. His idol is Professor Edwards, known as "Encore," head of the chemistry department. Dr. Norman Brumfit, instructor in English, and Professor Max Gottlieb are also introduced, the latter indirectly through characterization by his colleagues. Martin is impressed by the thought of Gottlieb, different from the others, working alone at night in a laboratory, contemptuous of academic success.
Martin's first meeting with Gottlieb is detailed in this chapter. An academic graduate, who has followed Doc Vickerson's advice to obtain training in the basic sciences, Martin feels somewhat superior to his fellow medics, most of whom have only a high school diploma before entering medical school. He is therefore disappointed and indignant when Gottlieb refuses to accept him as a student of bacteriology, saying that he is too young and that he should come back next year, after he has taken physical chemistry.
Two of Martin's fellow students, who are to appear and reappear in later chapters, are introduced here. The Reverend Ira Hinkley is going to be a medical missionary, representing the Sanctification Brotherhood. Clif Clawson, the class jester, irritates Martin. The cadavers on which the medical students work are callously christened "Billy," "Ike," and "the Parson."
Although Martin had been a "barb" in college, having belonged to no Greek letter society, he is persuaded in medical school to join Digamma Pi. From this group, though rough and amiable, had come the honor students for the preceding three years. New members in addition to Martin are Ira Hinkley, Angus Duer, Clif Clawson, and "Fatty" Pfaff. Initiation includes smelling asafetida.
Martin's roommates in the down-at-the-heel Digamma Pi residence are Clif Clawson, Fatty Pfaff, and Irving Watters, a serious but dull second-year medic. Martin likes Clif Clawson best, who in spite of his clowning is more companionable than the others. Martin detests Ira Hinkley, pities Fatty Pfaff, and fears the brilliant Angus Duer, who listens to the jabbering of his fraternity brothers in superior silence.
Satire is strong in the description of Winnemac, particularly of its university, which, like the Ford Motor Company, produces standardized products with interchangeable parts. Though they may rattle a little, these products are expected by 1950 to have grown in numbers and influence until they have created a new world civilization: conformist, unimaginative, and dull.
Sinclair Lewis is very skillful in presenting Professor Gottlieb through the eyes of his co-workers, emphasizing the wide difference between the real scholar and the conventional ones. Martin's interest in Gottlieb's lonely laboratory work foreshadows events to be developed in later chapters. Gottlieb's poverty and aloofness as well as his devotion to science are in contrast with the easygoing sociability of the other two professors.
The character of Gottlieb is further developed as the reader meets him in person instead of through the opinions of others. His warm German accent, his refusal to accept a half-prepared student in whom he is no doubt already interested, and his ascetic mode of living are all skillfully handled to arouse reader interest. Martin, too, is growing mentally and emotionally and is beginning to wonder if Encore Edwards knows everything, after all.
There is satire in the portrayal of twenty-nine-year-old Ira Hinkley, the "romping optimist who laughed away sin and trouble." Lewis, was already planning a criticism of the clergy which was to materialize in Elmer Gantry (1927). Both Hinkley and Clawson reappear from time to time as Arrowsmith develops.
More of Martin's contemporaries are initiated into Digamma Pi and are to influence his future. Angus Duer is a brilliant and determined student, having been class valedictorian in college. "Fatty" Pfaff, who looks like "a distended hot water bottle," is the butt of many a crude joke.
A new member of Digamma Pi, Irving Watters, is introduced and characterized as "smilingly, easily, dependably dull." New light is also thrown on Martin's other roommates, and details to be recalled as the tale progresses are inserted. In preparation for the profession to which he had looked forward all his life, Martin finds "irritation and vacuity as well as supreme wisdom."