Florence Sabin, 1871-1953

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Woman Category: Academy & Education and HealthWoman Tags: Scientist

  • HerStory

    Medical scientist and a pioneer for women in science and public health, the first woman member at the National Academy of Sciences.

    Sabin was born in Central City, Colorado, in a mining site, where her father worked as an engineer. When she was 7 years old, her mother died, and soon after, she and her sister moved to live with their grandparents in Vermont. As a child, she wanted to be a pianist, but as she grew up, she set her mind on science. After graduation, she enrolled in the all-women Smith College and earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology. Afterward, she taught math at a high school to earn tuition money for graduate school.
    At 25, Sabin attended Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her determination and observational skills caught the attention of the anatomist Franklin P. Mall, who encouraged her to focus on two significant projects – producing a model of a newborn’s brain stem and the development of newborn’s lymphatic system. Upon graduation, she gained an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and in the following year, she won a fellowship in the Department of Anatomy at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. At 35, she began to teach in the hospital’s department of Anatomy, and within three years, she got promoted to an associate professor. At the age of 46, she was appointed professor of embryology and histology and became the first woman to serve as a full professor at a medical college. Four years late, she became the first female president of the American Association of Anatomists, where she worked mainly on researching the origins of blood vessels.
    At the age of 54, Sabin left Johns Hopkins to concentrate on her research, becoming the head of the Department of Cellular Studies at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in NYC. That same year, she became the first female member of the National Academy of Science and a member of the research committee of the National Tuberculosis Association. She dedicated the next 12 years researching immune cells and the effects of foreign substances on the formation of antibodies.
    After her retainment, she accepted a request to chair a subcommittee on health in Colorado. In this position, she lobbied for health care legislation. Working tirelessly for this cause, she assisted the passing of the “Sabin Health Laws,” which modernized the state’s public health as well as dealing with other health issues such as tuberculosis treatment, public sanitation, and the standardization of milk quality. At age 77, she became Denver’s manager of health and charities. Throughout the years, she published more than 100 scientific papers, numerous book chapters, two medical books, and a biography of her mentor Franklin Paine Mall.

    “All we women need to do to exert our proper influence is just to use all the brains we have.”

    “All we women need to do to exert our proper influence is just to use all the brains we have.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She was one of fourteen women in her class at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
    • Her work on baby’s brain stem, titled An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain, became a popular medical text.
    • During her term as Denver’s manager of health and charities, she donated her salary to medical research.
    • She was the only female member at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, where she served as a department president.
    • She was part of a group of women working to build a women’s hospital in New York, in a mission to provide medicine jobs to women.
    • She was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.
    • She was never married or had children.
    • The Department of Medicine in The University of Colorado is named in her honor.
    • A statue of her is Colorado’s representative at the National Statuary Hall Collection.
    • One of the four colleges at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is named in her honor.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books about her


    * Lasker Award (1951)
    * Inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame (1985)

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Woman Tags: Scientist

    Profiles in Science - Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953)

    Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953) was an American anatomist and medical researcher. Her excellent and innovative work on the origins of the lymphatic system, blood cells, and immune system cells, and on the pathology of tuberculosis was well-recognized during her lifetime. She was also a trailblazer for women in science: the first woman to hold a full professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman to head a department at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In her retirement years, she pursued a second career as a public health activist in Colorado, and in 1951 received a Lasker Award for this work.

    As part of its Profiles in Science project, the National Library of Medicine has made available online, in collaboration with the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and the American Philosophical Society, a digitized selection of the Florence R. Sabin Papers. This website provides access to the portions of the Florence R. Sabin Papers that are now publicly available. Individuals interested in conducting research using the full collections of Florence R. Sabin Papers should contact the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and the American Philosophical Society.

    This Profile is designed to introduce you to the various phases of Sabin's scientific career and professional life. Narrative sections available from the navigation bar under "The Story" focus on Sabin's life and major scientific contributions.

    Researchers can search the digitized items using the Search box or browse all Documents and Visuals in the collection by selecting "Collection Items" from the navigation bar.

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