Florence Sabin Pioneered Her Way in Medical Science, Then Made Sure Other Women Could Do the Same

A scientist and so much more, she helped lay the groundwork for curing tuberculosis but still found time to promote women doctors

Before she tackled tuberculosis, Sabin helped rethink the lymphatic system and wrote an acclaimed anatomy textbook. (Science History Images / Alamy)
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The bronze statue in the Capitol building shows a woman sitting sideways in a chair, wearing a starched lab coat over a skirt and high-heeled shoes. Her hair is combed away from her face, her head tilted to the side as if someone's just called her name. One arm is draped over the back of the chair and the other rests on a book. But don’t be mistaken: there's nothing dreamy about her posture. You can have a minute—if it's important—but that's about it. Dr. Sabin is at work.

In her three-stage career, Florence Rena Sabin worked all the time, pushing tuberculosis research forward and speaking up for women in an era when their career options in medicine were limited. She was a doctor, researcher and public health leader. Her tuberculosis research contributed toward loosening the disease's grip on the nation, and in her "retirement," she helped improve health policy, fighting for better healthcare for Coloradans.

"Sabin was always tremendously involved with the greater world while always identifying first and foremost as a scientist," says Patricia Rosof, an adjunct assistant professor at New York University’s School of Liberal Studies who wrote an article about Sabin's "quiet feminism." "She had an insatiable curiosity. So many of her actions came out of her involvement in the scientific realm, placed in the context of her awareness of the greater social and political context."

Born in Central City, Colorado in 1871, Sabin attended the all-women Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1896, she became one of 14 women in a class of 45 to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School, which had just been built thanks to a group of women who managed to raise enough funding. (Their stipulation: women had to be allowed into the school. Harvard's medical school, by contrast, didn't admit women until 1945.) At Hopkins, Sabin studied anatomy under mentor and chair of the anatomy department, Franklin Paine Mall.

Mall saw potential in his new student, and with his encouragement, Sabin created a celebrated brain model of the brain stem of a newborn. That work grew into a textbook called An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain. It was highly unusual for an intern to produce something so advanced, says Susan Speaker, a historian at the National Library of Medicine who has written about Sabin for an NIH online series. "Sabin’s meticulous anatomical presentation of neonatal brain structure was on a much higher level than was typical for someone of her age," Speaker says.

Sabin’s other work at Hopkins tackled a common misapprehension of the time: the widely held belief that the lymphatics (vessels carrying lymph) originated in tissue spaces and grew toward veins. Sabin proved the opposite: they start as buds from the veins and go outward. She injected colored fluid into the lymphatic vessels of pig embryos to demonstrate her hypothesis, and developed a system of dyeing cells that helped scientists distinguish certain living cells from each other.

Just after graduating from medical school, Sabin received an appointment as a medical intern. (Also at Hopkins was modernist writer Gertrude Stein, who also studied anatomy but never graduated; her brain model had a key mistake in it. Also, as, Sabin once wrote to a friend, Stein left sticky balsam—a slide fixative—all over the lab's chairs, tables, and doorknobs.)

Sabin rose through the ranks, and by 1917, she became the first woman to earn a full professorship at Hopkins' medical school. In the fall of 1925, Sabin left Hopkins for New York to become a research scientist at The Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University.) Without a family and with no college teaching duties, she was able to devote all her time to research. As part of the Research Committee of the National Tuberculosis Association, Sabin led a multi-institutional investigation into the origins of tuberculosis, which by the late 19th century was infecting 80 to 90 percent of urban dwellers.

"The early 1900s were a ‘golden age’ of microbiology," explains Speaker. "Researchers had started to understand how the body’s immune system copes with invaders such as bacteria and viruses … They had successfully developed vaccines for diseases such as rabies and typhoid, and antibody treatments for diseases like tetanus and diphtheria."

But there was nothing yet for pulmonary tuberculosis, which killed 80 percent of the people who actually developed the disease. Speaker explains that in the 1920s, researchers were still working to better understand what specific characteristics made bacteria cause disease, and in what ways they might be vulnerable. Looking at how the immune system attacked each kind of bacteria helped do that.

"The tuberculosis bacteria turned out to be a very tough microbe," says Speaker. It has a complex infection process, and early efforts to produce either a vaccine or a cure failed.

Sabin and her co-workers described the different lesions that tuberculosis causes, and demonstrated that you could reproduce those lesions in animals, using various chemical components isolated from the organisms. Speaker says that Sabin's work furthered "knowledge of how TB interacts with elements of the immune system, and why the immune system can’t always defeat it … While it didn't result in a cure, Sabin's work significantly advanced knowledge of both tuberculosis and the immune system.”

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In 1924 Sabin was elected the first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists and later became the first lifetime woman member of the National Academy of Science. Her statue, designed by Joy Buba, has stood in the Capitol since 1959. (Architect of the Capitol)

Even as she worked to push the limits of her field, Sabin was also fighting for other women doctors. In 1923, Rosof writes, Yale medical school wrote her that they couldn't give a spot to a woman doctor she recommended, because they were already taking one. Sabin believed, as she wrote in a letter, that it was "better for all women to remove restrictions that are artificial and to permit women to find the level of their own abilities."

Her support for women was evident in her personal life as well: At Hopkins, people noticed that Sabin didn't always like men to hold open doors for her. Her car was a Franklin that she called Susan B. Anthony.

But she also struggled with balancing activism and professional life. Around 1923, she turned down a full chair's job in China. "I thought that I really had to go and from the standpoint of position, I probably should have gone because it is the first time a woman had had a full chair in a man's institution," she wrote to a friend, describing her internal conflict. "I must ask you not to let it get out now that I have declined. I made up my mind that I cared more for my research than I did for positions."

Sabin later joined a group that was working to build a women's hospital in New York, which would give women in medicine jobs, but also provide good health care to those who couldn't always pay. By 1927, there was conversation about a capital campaign, and even talk of a medical school. But as Rosof writes, the Depression put an end to the plans, and by 1943, the board had dismantled its corporation and given its funds away.

"So many of her actions came out of her involvement in the scientific realm, placed in the context of her awareness of the greater social and political context," says Rosof.

Sabin retired from Rockefeller in 1938, but didn't stay that way for long. After going home to Denver and moving in with her sister Mary, she was soon drafted to help with tuberculosis, which was a major problem for the city. This meant long, cold nights in blizzards, in cars with tire chains, teaching people about the disease. "She would go to the county hospital or local hospital, and if there was any kind of county health department she'd talk to them," says Tom "Dr. Colorado" Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. "She'd also go and inspect dairies, inspect sewage plants, and then lobby the powers that be and get them concerned."

"We got the facts and told people about them," is how Sabin summed up her work. Her campaigning and fame helped pass bills—which came to be called the "Sabin Health Laws"—that included one allowing counties to combine forces to receive funds, and one to increase the per diem for indigent tuberculosis patients in the hospital.

Sabin was constantly learning. Once, a co-worker visited her home in Denver. On one side of her chair stood a bowl filled with flowers; on the other was a stack of books including one by Freud, one by Einstein, and J. Thomas Looney's Shakespeare, Identified, which argued that the Earl of Oxford really wrote Shakespeare's plays. At her goodbye dinner upon retiring from Rockefeller, Sabin said that "the most interesting thing about it all is that, in the last few weeks, I have just discovered that everything I have been doing in these last few years is all wrong," she said.

She was teasing, but made her point: you learn from your mistakes. The experiments that don't work are important, too. Keep going.

Societies, universities, and Colorado honored Sabin. She was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1925—likely where her title "the first lady of American science" comes from—and also the first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists. Schools gave her 15 honorary doctorates, and she earned awards from organizations ranging from the National Tuberculosis Association to Good Housekeeping Magazine. The University of Colorado's medical school dedicated a building in her honor, as did Smith. That bronze statue has stood in the Capitol's National Statuary Hall since 1959.

On October 3, 1953, Sabin sat down to watch her favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, play the Yankees in the World Series. She died before the end of the game. (The Dodgers won, 7-3.) She was 81.

Sabin looked inward, into the invisible world inside her microscope, and into her own deductions, experiments and hypotheses. But she looked forward, too. In 1940, women's rights activist Carrie Chapman Catt wrote her, asking for a list of notable women doctors. "The thing that makes me most happy about the outlook for women in medicine is that there is now a group of younger women doing distinguished medical research," Sabin wrote back. "I take great pleasure and pride in their work."

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