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

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

Part One — 1871-1938

Florence Sabin as Young Girl Florence Rena Sabin was born in Central City, Colorado, on November 9, 1871. She was the daughter of George K. Sabin, a mining engineer, and Serena Miner Sabin, a schoolteacher who died of puerperal fever in 1878, when Florence was seven.

Florence and her older sister Mary grew up in Denver (1875-1880), near Chicago (1880-1884) with their uncle Albert R. Sabin, and they spent the summers in Vermont with their paternal grandparents. Florence Sabin attended Vermont Academy (1885-1889) in Saxtons River, Vermont.

In 1893 Florence Sabin received her BS degree from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she had majored in zoology and mathematics. She then taught mathematics (1893-1895) at Wolfe Hall, a Denver private school for girls established by the Episcopal Church. During the 1895-1896 school year she taught zoology at Smith College.

After spending the summer of 1896 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1896 she entered the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and received her MD in 1900, graduating first in her class (below, 2nd row left).

Florence Sabin 2nd Row left Johns Hopkins MD 1900

Dr. Sabin began her research on the origins of lymphatic system, blood vessels, white blood cells, and connective tissue during her internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was supervised by Dr. William Osler, professor of medicine and one of the founders of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

In 1901 she published An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain, a widely used laboratory manual.
Florence Sabin at Johns Hopkins
In 1902 she began teaching anatomy at Johns Hopkins.

1917 — World War I

On March 27, 1917, Dr. Florence Sabin wrote to her good friend in Denver, Ella Strong Denison, the widow of Dr. Charles Denison (1845-1909):

I have just finished signing up my card of registry for service in the war. The University [Johns Hopkins] as I understand it has offered its entire equipment and each member of the staff is asked to say what he will do. I have put down:
  1. Teaching in the medical school
  2. Working in a clinical laboratory
  3. Making supplies and dressings
  4. Cooking
I put down that I had had training as a physician and a chauffeur [ambulance driver] and could speak German. Ouch, I should hate to be sent to Germany as a spy — I said to someone that I should be afraid that I should talk against the Germans — and the reply was I should only need to "look."

The Hopkins will be made a base hospital and I think that the laboratory may be used for teaching part of the time and for making serums and supplies the rest of the time. (The Florence R. Sabin Papers, Box 10, Folder 2, at the National Library of Medicine)

Full Professor at Johns Hopkins

In 1917, Florence Sabin, MD, became the first woman to be a full professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine — she was professor of histology in the Department of Anatomy.

There were other firsts:

  • Florence Sabin was the first woman to be president of the American Association of Anatomists (1924-1926).
  • She was the first woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1925).
  • She was the first woman to be a full professor, and the first to be a department chair, at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (1925)

Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research

In 1925 Dr. Florence Sabin became chair of the Department of Cellular Studies at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City.

Simon Flexner, the Institute's director, had told her that "something fundamental should be done about the anemias and leukemias, and you are the best person to do it."

Florence Sabin at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research Her research focused on role of the monocyte and other white blood cells in the defense of the body against infections.

Dr. Sabin and her team at the Rockefeller Institute participated in an multi-institutional program organized by the National Tuberculosis Association to integrate the bacteriological, chemical, and biological studies that were being done in universities, federal and private research institutes, and at pharmaceutical companies.

In 1931, a Good Housekeeping magazine poll resulted in Florence Sabin being named one of America's twelve most eminent living women.

In 1932, the Chi Omega sorority gave Dr. Sabin its first National Achievement Award in recognition of notable achievement by women.

Dr. Sabin had loved her work and the cultural life in New York City, but she returned to live with her older sister in Denver not long before she turned 67 on November 9, 1938.

She served on the Educational Advisory Board of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York (1939-1947).

Dr. Sabin also served on the board of the Childrens' Hospital in Denver and continued some of the work she had been doing at the Rockefeller Institute. But her relatively quiet retirement came to an end in 1944.

Return to Top

Copyright © 2015 Thomas J. Sherlock
All Rights Reserved.