Florence R. Sabin, M.D. (1871-1953)

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

Introduction — Reforming Public Health in Colorado

Florence Sabin in 1932 In 1946, Florence Sabin, M.D. — an eminent 75-year-old research scientist who had returned home to Colorado after she retired from the Rockefeller Institute in New York City — began travelling around the state, paying her own way, asking the women of Colorado to pressure the legislature to reform the state's corrupt public health system despite powerful special interest groups that were profiting from the status quo.

Florence Sabin brought intelligence, compassion, and determination to the extraordinarily challenging job Governor John Vivian had given her after World War II, never imagining that she would take it so seriously.

In the end, the legislature was left with no choice but to pass the laws that Dr. Sabin had drafted herself — because she had personally explained the problems and her proposed solutions to women all over Colorado, and because she had so effectively challenged them to demand action from their legislators. After listening to Dr. Sabin and reading the "Basic Health Needs of Colorado" pamphlet she gave them, women understood that the well-being of their children and grandchildren was at stake.

Five of the "Sabin Health Laws" established and funded health services, and three dealt with the control of specific diseases. All but one of her bills was passed by the Colorado legislature in 1947. Only the "cow health bill," aimed at controlling brucellosis in cattle, was defeated.

Introduction — Reforming Public Health in Denver

Then Mayor Quigg Newton asked Dr. Florence Sabin to help him reform Denver's public health system. During her tenure as chair of an Interim Board of Health and Hospitals (1948-1951), Denver's tuberculosis rate dropped by 50% and the incidence of syphilis by more than 85%.

Her concerns included the building of a new sewage treatment plant for Denver, increased frequency of garbage collection, an aggressive rat-elimination campaign, and improvement in the quality of milk and other dairy products. She worked with Denver General Hospital and the Denver Police Department to establish an emergency telephone number that residents could use to call for help.

Dr. Sabin's Own Analysis of Healthcare Reform in Colorado

On May 28, 1947 — when her healthcare reform efforts in Colorado were just getting started — Dr. Florence Sabin began her address to the Western Branch of the American Public Health Association, which was meeting in San Francisco, with these words:

Two years ago the State Government in Colorado had only one interest in its Division of Public Health; namely, that it was one more place in which to try to force political appointments. Moreover, the Denver city machine had had a remarkably successful record defeating health bills in the legislature. The machine had only to pass the word down the line to kill health bills, and they were killed.

Now, what a change! There is a new Governor, Lee Knous, who campaigned for good government and specifically for a health program, and is enthusiastically carrying out his pledges.

On May 20, 1947, an election in Denver brought into office a new Mayor-elect, Quigg Newton, a young man who ran, without benefit of party, against government by political machines. He won more votes than all four other candidates together. He understands the fundamental principles of the movement; he wants, just as eagerly as informed citizens, a modern, professionally staffed health department, and a strengthened medical school for training physicians for both curative and preventive medicine — indeed a true medical center for the Rocky Mountain region.

No wonder Coloradoans walk on air and talk of health to match their mountains! They have won the decisive battles of their campaign and now have only to get on with the business of public health in Colorado. As a matter of fact, recent history has even more significance than any one cause, however vital, for it has shown that under our American form of government whenever our people really want good government they can have it. ("The People Win for Public Health in Colorado," American Journal of Public Health, October 1947)
Florence Sabin was probably the finest scientist ever born in Colorado, and she was unquestionably the most effective healthcare reformer we've had so far. She hadn't lived in her native Colorado since she was a girl, but when she was in her 70s she worked single-mindedly to give us the state and city public health systems that we needed.

In 1959, the State of Colorado placed a statue of Dr. Florence Sabin in National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.

In the following four files, you can read some of her story:

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