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Florence Rena Sabin

pioneer medical researcher

Florence Rena Sabin

Florence Rena Sabin was born in Central City, Colorado, on November 9, 1871, the second daughter of George K. Sabin, a mining engineer, and Serena Miner Sabin, a schoolteacher. Her mother died in 1877, after which she and her older sister Mary lived with an uncle in Chicago and their paternal grandparents in Vermont.

Although she displayed an early talent for math and science, Sabin originally aspired to become a pianist. She changed her mind in high school, however, after a classmate bluntly told her that her musical abilities were average at best. At Smith College, she majored in zoology, and was encouraged by the staff physician to study medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She received her Bachelor's degree in 1893, then taught high school for three years to earn enough to fund her first year of medical training.

Sabin entered Johns Hopkins in 1896 and soon attracted the attention of anatomist Franklin P. Mall, who became her mentor and encouraged her to pursue "pure" (as opposed to applied) science. After graduating in 1900 and spending a year interning at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Sabin won a research fellowship from the Baltimore Association for the Promotion of University Education for Women to work with Mall in the Department of Anatomy. It was he who suggested that she create a three-dimensional model of a newborn baby's brainstem, which became the basis of a widely used textbook, An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain, published in 1901.

In 1902, Sabin became the first woman faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as an assistant professor of anatomy. She was promoted to associate professor in 1905, and to Professor of Histology in 1917. Although she was a popular teacher, she continued to focus most of her energy on research, including an investigation of the embryological development of the lymphatic system. That investigation led to proof that lymphatic vessels develop from a special layer of cells in certain fetal veins, rather than, as prevailing theory held, from intercellular spaces. She also studied blood, blood vessels, and blood cells, and made numerous discoveries regarding their origin and development. Her work made her one of the most female scientists of her day, and in 1924 Sabin became the first woman to be elected president of the American Association of Anatomists.

Sabin gave up teaching in 1925 to become head of the cellular immunology section of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, where she focused most of her research on the role of the body's white blood cells in fending off disease, especially tuberculosis. Not only was she the first woman to become a full member of the Institute, she also became the first woman to be elected to membership of the National Academy of Sciences (also in 1925). In 1934, she published a biography of her early mentor at Johns Hopkins, Franklin Paine Mall: The Story of a Mind.

In 1938, Sabin retired from the Rockefeller Institute and moved to Denver, Colorado to live with her sister Mary. She remained an active participant in the scientific community through her correspondence and membership on various advisory boards. In 1944, she was asked to chair the Health Committee of Colorado's Post-War Planning Committee, which investigated health services in the state, drafted a series of health bills later known as the "Sabin Program," and then campaigned for their passage. Four of the six bills were passed in 1947. After this, Sabin served as chair of an Interim Board of Health and Hospitals of Denver, and then as Manager of the Denver Department of Health and Charities, until 1951. In the latter post, she launched a vigorous campaign to clean up the city, improve its sanitation, enforce health regulations for restaurants and food suppliers, and screen the population for tuberculosis and syphilis. Within two years, Denver's tuberculosis incidence was reduced from 54.7 to 27 per 100,000, and the syphilis frequency from 700 to 60 per 100,000.

Florence Rena Sabin died in Denver on October 3, 1953. In 1959 the State of Colorado honored her by placing a statue of Sabin in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.

National Library of Medicine

Johns Hopkins University
Denver, Colorado

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This page was last updated on 09/23/2017.