Florence R. Sabin, M.D. (1871-1953)
Part Two — 1944-1946
Late in 1944, Governor John Vivian appointed Florence R. Sabin, MD, a 74-year-old native of Central City, to chair the Subcommittee on Health of the Colorado Post-War Planning Committee.
Dr. Sabin did what any research scientist would do — she said she needed the facts.
She persuaded Governor Vivian to get the Commonwealth Fund to pay for the American Public Health Association (APHA) to survey Coloradans' health. The APHA sent Dr. Carl E. Buck to do the study, which was published in 1946.
In 1946, Dr. Carl E. Buck published Colorado Public Health Needs and How to Meet Them. A Report of a Study Made by the American Public Health Association, November, 1945 – March 1946 — the unexpectedly disturbing report that had been commissioned by Governor John Vivian. Dr. Buck made it clear that Colorado's public health was considerably worse than that of other states.
Florence Sabin, MD — chair of the Colorado Post-War Planning Committee's subcommittee on health — had asked Governor Vivian for this study back in 1944.
A 1969 Colorado Department of Health booklet:
"Buck estimated that 8,245 deaths from preventable and controllable causes in the period 1940-1944 could have been prevented had existing knowledge concerning preventive medicine and health protection been universally applied throughout Colorado. Those 8,245 persons who died needlessly in the five-year period represented almost three times the 2,699 Coloradoans who had died or were missing in World War II."
Dr. Carl Buck thought that he knew the source of the problem:
"Unless public health can be freed from politics by establishing a real State Department of Public Health and by completely reorganizing the State Civil Service System, there is little hope of improving Colorado's none-too-enviable health record.
"Public health is altogether too important to the people of any state to have it so placed in the government as to be so completely susceptible to political machinations and maneuvering." He said that the Civil Service Commission was "a formidable barrier to the procurement of good people and a disgrace to the state."
Dr. Sabin Reforms Public Health in Colorado
That was all Dr. Sabin needed to know. On March 29, 1946, she invited 59 influential Coloradans to dinner at the Brown Palace and announced that of twenty major causes of death in the United States, Colorado exceeded the national average in thirteen of those causes, and that she intended to change that.
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She had other dinner meetings with the Civil Service Commission, with Colorado's dairy products producers, with tuberculosis care professionals, and with sanitation engineers from around the state. Dr. Sabin paid her own expenses and traveled around Colorado talking to any group that would listen, no matter what the weather.
What Governor John Vivian thought about all this isn't clear, but he had been assured back in 1944 that he could appoint Florence Sabin to chair the health subcommittee without having to worry about her causing any trouble. When he appointed her, he was told that she was just a nice little 74-year-old lady who wore old-fashioned clothes and had spent her whole career in research laboratories back east.
Dr. Sabin had been a research scientist her whole adult life, but she was not uncomfortable outside the lab. She had lived in New York City from 1925 until 1938, and she enjoyed what the city had to offer, led an active social life, and had no problem communicating. Her appearance misled some at first, but now, at age 75, she was energetic and quite persuasive when she explained Colorado's public health needs to audiences around the state, and she urged them to lobby their state senators and representatives.
Florence Sabin, MD, may have been Colorado's finest scientist ever, but she was the state's most effective healthcare reformer so far — because she focused on the fact that special interests would try to derail reform. She personally made sure that what elected officials heard from the public, particularly from women, was loud and clear.
The resulting "Sabin Health Laws" thoroughly modernized Colorado's public health system.
Copyright © 2015 Thomas J. Sherlock
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