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Monthly Archives: March 2009

Colorado’s Mother of Public Health

Florence Rena Sabin, M.D.  1871-1953

In honor of National Public Health Week, April 6-12, 2009, this month’s biography will be about Dr. Florence Sabin, the “Mother” of public health in Colorado.

Dr. Sabin was born in Central City, Colorado on November 9, 1871. Following the death of her mother, Florence and her sister Mary were sent to Chicago and ultimately to the Sabin family farm in Vermont where they lived with their grandparents. They both attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

After college, Florence returned to Colorado where she taught at Wolfe Hall (located in downtown Denver) and then at Smith College. Her goal was to save money to become a doctor. In 1896, Sabin enrolled in Johns Hopkins  Medical School. The school had opened in 1893 and from the beginning admitted both men and women, in fulfillment of one of the conditions of the gift that made its opening possible. As a student, she designed a beeswax model of a newborn baby’s brainstem that was used for decades by medical school students, along with her text book “Atlas of the Midbrain and Medulla”.   Florence became one of the first women to enter the school and in 1900 graduated at the top of her class.

Following medical school, Sabin became the first woman professor at the school and also conducted medical research. She made important contributions to the knowledge of the histology of the brain,  the development of the lymphatic systems, and to the understanding of the pathology and immunology of tuberculosis.  Dr. Sabin also became the first woman to become a department head at New York’s Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1924. She directed the Department of Cellular Studies and conducted significant research in several areas. In 1924, Sabin was also elected the first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists. Florence was the first woman elected to life membership in the National Academy of Sciences and in the 1930s was called “the leading woman scientist in the world”. She was also a prominent supporter of
women’s rights.

Dr. Sabin retired in 1938 and moved back to Colorado.  In 1944 at age 73, following World War II, she was appointed by Colorado Gov. John Vivian to chair a subcommittee on health care in Colorado. Colorado’s health policies and practices were among the worst in the nation at the time. She declared war on “flies, rats, and dirty milk”.  Her work resulted in the “Sabin Health Laws”, which modernized every aspect of healthcare in Colorado, including sanitation standards, enforcement of communicable disease laws, and the creation of better health programs for children.  In later years, Dr. Sabin headed both the state Board of Health and the Denver Department of Health and Charities.

In 1951, Sabin again retired at the age of 80 and died on October 3, 1953.

In addition to the honors listed above, Denver’s Sabin Elementary School was named after her, as was the Sabin Cancer Research Wing at the University of Colorado’s Denver Medical Center. She is also the only Colorado woman to be included in the American Women of Achievement book series, joining other notable women that include Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1959 Colorado donated a statue of Dr. Sabin, medical research pioneer, to the National Statuary Hall collection located in the Capital Building in Washington D.C. She is one of two Coloradans to be memorialized in this manner. The other is former astronaut Jack Swigert.

In 2005, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine honored Sabin’s legacy by naming one of its four colleges after her.

Dr. Sabin’s ashes are entombed in the Fairmount Community Mausoleum next to those of her sister Mary. Chapel Floor, Col. D, space 1053

 By Marilyn Swett