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Dr. Florence Rena Sabin (9 November, 1871-3 October, 1953) is known for her contributions to the field of medical research and for her efforts to reform public health in Colorado. She is also remembered for her spirit and determination to see a project through to the end. Always quick to turn the topic of conversation away from herself, she credited those around her who contributed to her successes. While much of her life was spent in a laboratory, she enjoyed entertaining friends and was admired for speaking her mind as she often did in her efforts to reform public health. Perhaps her independence and strength grew out of her early life experiences.

Sabin was born November 9, 1871 in Central City, Colorado. The youngest daughter of Serena Miner and George K. Sabin, her father was a mining engineer, so the family spent several years in mining communities (Smith College n.d.). At the age of seven, Florence’s mother died from puerperal fever (sepsis), and after her death, Sabin and her sister Mary lived with their Uncle Albert Sabin in Chicago and then with their paternal grandparents in Vermont (Answers.com n.d.).

Sabin attended Vermont Academy and Smith College. She received her bachelor’s degree from Smith in 1893. With a desire to attend Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Sabin taught high school mathematics in Denver for two years and zoology at Smith for one year in order to earn enough money for her first year of tuition National Library of Medicine 1923). In 1896, she was admitted to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and four years later in 1900, she became the first woman graduate of the school. Following graduation, she was awarded an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital under physician Sir William Osler. While at Hopkins, Sabin’s observational skills and perseverance in the laboratory captured the attention of anatomist Franklin P. Mall. Mall encouraged Sabin and helped her to become involved in two projects that would build a solid reputation for her among fellow scientists (Parkhurst 1930). Following a one-year internship with Osler, she won a research fellowship in the Department of Anatomy at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine where she worked with Mall (National Library of Medicine n.d.).

The projects suggested by Mall shaped the future of Sabin’s research and reputation. The first project was to produce a three-dimensional model of a newborn baby’s brainstem which became the focus of the textbook, An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain, published in 1901 (Sabin 1901). The second project involved the embryological development of the lymphatic system which proved that the lymphatic system is formed from the embryo’s blood vessels and not other tissues (Smith College n.d.).

In 1903, Sabin became the first woman faculty member at Johns Hopkins, as a member of the Department of Anatomy, where she taught embryology and histology. She was promoted in 1905 to associate professor and then to full professor in 1917, which was another first for a woman at that institution. The promotion to full professor was bittersweet, however, as it followed the death of her colleague Mall, with whom she had worked for more than a decade. With her experience and skill, she was expected to succeed Mall as chair of the department, but was overlooked in favor of one of her former students, Lewis Weed. Nonetheless, she remained on at Hopkins another seven years as a professor of histology and continued her research on the origins of blood, blood vessels, blood cells, the histology of the brain, and the pathology and immunology of tuberculosis (National Library of Medicine n.d.). In 1924, Sabin’s work on the origins of blood vessels earned her membership in the National Academy of Science (Parkhurst 1930).

The Rockefeller Institute invited Sabin to become head of the Department of Cellular Studies in 1925. Sabin accepted, making her the first woman faculty member there as well and continued her work on tuberculosis until her retirement in 1938 (National Library of Medicine, n.d.).

Upon her retirement, Sabin returned to Colorado to live with her sister Mary where she remained active in professional organizations and continued correspondence with colleagues. In 1944, Colorado Governor John Vivian recruited Sabin to assess the public health needs of the state and its citizens. In an address to the Illinois Statewide Health Committee in 1947, Sabin said that she was chosen because the Governor had no interest in the idea of public health and appointed “an old lady” because he did not think she would be able to accomplish anything (Sabin 1947). Sabin presented her findings that the state was “backward in regard to public health” in a letter to the Governor in April 1945 and as Chair of the Governor’s Committee on Health was a fierce political warrior. Knowing that health legislation had been voted down consistently in the past due to uninterested politicians, she was persistent and relentless in spreading the message of the need for health reform in the state of Colorado. In her early seventies at the time, she did not let eight inches of snow stop her from making it to a speech in support of her cause despite the plea of a health official who was concerned for her safe passage to the speech. In reply, she promptly told him, “pick me up at nine, and don’t forget your rubbers.” She worked to have politicians who opposed health reform defeated in favor of those who showed support. Her tenacity paid off as the health bills she supported were passed. The results of her efforts were known as the “Sabin Health Laws” which modernized the public health system in Colorado and other states. From her efforts, more hospital beds were made available in Colorado and tuberculosis rates were reduced dramatically. Governor Lee Knous, Vivian’s successor and a supporter of public health, referred to her as a “dynamo” and an “atom bomb” (Bald 1947).

Sabin retired for a second and final time in 1951, although she continued to write and speak on public health. That same year, the University of Colorado’s Department of Medicine dedicated the Florence R. Sabin Building for Research in Cellular Biology in honor of her 80th birthday. Sabin died of a heart attack on October 3, 1953. In 1959, a statue in her image was donated to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. to represent the people of Colorado (Smith College n.d.).

The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College holds many of Dr. Sabin’s papers.  Other collections are located in the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, the University of Colorado Medical School, the Colorado State Historical Society’s Division of Museums, the Rockefeller Institute, and in the Alan Mason Chesney Papers at Johns Hopkins University. 
Bald, W. 1947. She’s a bombshell at 76. New York: New York Post, December 9.

National Library of Medicine. 1923. Profiles in Science: The Florence R. Sabin Papers, Smith College Alumni Questionnaire, 1923.

National Library of Medicine. N.D. Changing the face of medicine: Dr. Florence R. Sabin. Parkhurst, G. 1930. Dr. Sabin, Scientist. Pictorial Review 30(January): 2-3.

Sabin, F. R. 1901. An atlas of the medulla and midbrain. Baltimore: The Friedenwald Company.

Sabin, F. R. 1947. Profiles in science. Speech read at Illinois Statewide Public Health Committee, September 5.

Smith College. N.D. Florence Rena Sabin Papers: Biographical Note. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

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