While going through medical school, Martin Arrowsmith uses all his spare time trying to understand Max Gottlieb's scientific paper. It isn't easy, though. The papers are filled with all kinds of wacky math equations. The more he reads this paper, the more contempt he starts to have for the laziness of all his other professors.
Martin also starts debating with his fellow frat brothers about what makes a good doctor. Most of them insist that a doctor needs to be a good community member and a good physician. Martin believes that a good doctor should be interested in the quest for scientific truth.
One day, the clownish Clif Clawson lights a firecracker and tosses it into one of the cadavers that the med students are dissecting. It makes quite a stir in the lab, but Clif gets away with it. It's only later, though, that Clif starts pushing the envelope. One day, a group of highly respected officials are touring the medical school, and Clif throws a dissected pancreas into one of their hats. He nearly gets found out and suspended for that one.
To let off steam, Martin likes to go into the nearby city of Zenith and drink beer with Clif and talk about how phony all of their friends and professors are.
For all his superiority, though, Martin knows that he's totally ignorant when it comes to anything that isn't science (like art, culture, or literature).
It's during these days that Martin starts to think a lot about a woman named Madeline Fox. Madeline is a girl Martin knows from his college days. They hang out, and Martin complains to her about how his fellow medical students aren't interested in lofty Scientific Truth at all. They're only interested in knowing as much as it takes to work as a doctor and make a doctor's salary.
Martin tries to kiss Madeline on one of their dates, but she pulls away. Remember that this is the early twentieth century, and people's ideas about what was proper were a little stricter than they are today.
During exams, the biggest problem at Martin's fraternity is finding a way to get Fatty Pfaff through his exams. The guy has already failed his midterm and he needs a lot of help. Unfortunately, nothing stays in his head when people try to teach him. In the end, one of the boys slips a cheat sheet into Fatty's pocket. The guy passes.
Martin and his buds all get through their exams, but not without a lot of bickering.
That summer, Martin finds work laying telephone wires along the side of the road in Montana. He loves working with the wire crew and loves how happy they all are. But the moment summer is over all he can think about is getting back to med school.