One of the preeminent medical and scientific minds of the early twentieth century, Dr. Florence Rena Sabin (1871–1953) was a public servant devoted to improving public health. As the first woman to receive a full professorship at Johns Hopkins University, Sabin was also a successful woman in the medical field at a time when the profession was still dominated by men. In addition to helping Colorado’s fight against polio and tuberculosis, Sabin championed legislation that created the State Health Department in 1947 and successfully lobbied for a variety of other public health improvements. She is regarded as one of the best scientists Colorado has ever produced, and her legacy is honored with a statue in the nation’s capital.
Born on November 9, 1871, Sabin grew up in a frame house on Pat Casey Road, a narrow street clinging to a hillside in Central City. Her father, George K. Sabin, was a mining engineer who came west in December 1860, and her mother, Rena Miner Sabin, cared for Florence and her sister Mary, who was two years older. A man with a horse-drawn tank brought water every day, piping it through a hose to two barrels in the Sabin pantry. Mary worried whether the family would run out of water before the next morning; Florence worried about the water’s purity.
On May 21, 1874, Central City caught fire and George Sabin rushed down the hill to fight it. He returned home burned and with his hair singed. Mary ran for a sponge, but it was Florence who tenderly cleaned her father’s wounds. Late in the summer of 1875, the Sabins moved to 380 Waloosa Street in Denver (today’s Court Place between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets). Florence walked with her mother and Mary three blocks to school near Broadway and Fourteenth. There they saw the children in a line, drinking from a common dipper and pail. Her mother scolded the teachers that the practice was unsanitary—a memory that would stick with Florence for the rest of her life.
In 1876 Mary and Florence got a baby brother, and the family moved to a bigger house across Broadway and up the hill, just south of the corner at Eighteenth and Grant. Their baby brother quickly sickened and died shortly thereafter. Florence was in tears for days. Afterward, Mrs. Sabin was tired and did not always have a smile for the little girls. They soon learned that there would be another baby. On Halloween night in 1878, a baby boy, Albert, was born. Nine days later, on Florence’s seventh birthday, her mother died. Florence would later remember this moment as the end of her childhood.
Unable to make a home for the girls by himself, George Sabin sent them to board at Wolfe Hall, a private school for girls at Seventeenth and Champa. In less than a year, Albert also passed away. Mary and Florence were then sent to Chicago to live with an uncle, also named Albert. Their uncle taught the Sabin girls many things, including a love of nature and an appreciation for books and music. Uncle Albert took the girls to the old family farm in Vermont, where they learned of Levi Sabin, who graduated from medical school in 1798. George Sabin had also wanted to be doctor.
In 1885 Florence and Mary entered the Vermont Academy, where their teachers discovered their superior intellect. Mary graduated and moved on to Smith College as Florence withdrew into her science textbooks and laboratory assignments. She became fascinated with zoology, and her highest grades were in biology, chemistry, and geology. She graduated with a science degree. The gender discrimination of the day, particularly in the scientific pursuits, made it so that no top-rated school of Sabin’s choice would admit her into a medical class, so she returned to Denver for two years, planning to teach school with her sister Mary.
In 1896 Sabin found a good medical school that had a financial incentive from a benefactor to admit women as well as men—Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Sabin breezed through courses in anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and bacteriology, soon winning a spot as a laboratory researcher. She wrote and presented papers and helped prepare books. Sabin did not initially function well under pressure and thus decided to enter the research and laboratory aspects of medicine as opposed to direct practice. She graduated on June 12, 1900.
Career in Medicine
Sabin had a distinguished career. She studied the lymphatic system, blood cells and vessels, and made a model of a baby’s brain stem that would be used in medical schools for years to come. She became the first woman to receive a full professorship at Johns Hopkins and the first woman to attain membership in the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. The institute’s director, Dr. Simon Flexner, called Sabin the leading woman scientist in the world.
Anatomy engrossed Sabin, and in 1901 she published the first of thirty-nine books and articles: An Atlas of the Medulla and the Midbrain. Her other writings included the articles “On the Origin of the Abdominal Lymphatics in Mammals from the Vena Cava and the Renal Veins” and “Studies on the Maturation of Myeloblasts into Myelocytes and on Amitotic Cell Division in Peripheral Blood in Subacute Myeloblastic Leucemia [sic].”
In 1938 Florence’s sister Mary, retired after a forty-year career as a mathematics teacher at Denver’s East High School, begged her to return to Colorado. Florence had achieved acclaim and was content to let a younger generation carry forth the work she had pioneered. The sisters went house-hunting and settled in a first-floor apartment near Cheesman Park at 1333 East Tenth Avenue.
Subcommittee on Public Health
Despite her reading, ongoing study, and motoring trips through the mountains, Florence Sabin took seriously a half-hearted summons from Governor Charles Vivian to chair Colorado’s new health subcommittee. In 1945 Sabin’s subcommittee on health verified that for a state touting its healthy atmosphere, Colorado’s health system was sick. On March 29, 1946, Sabin gathered her committee members at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver to discuss Colorado’s healthcare failings and set goals for improvement. Forty-nine community and professional leaders were present, including doctors, dentists, nurses, state health board members, and medical school professors, as well as state legislators, lawyers, and the clergy.
In her whispery voice, Sabin informed the surprised assemblage that Colorado’s attentiveness to health matters was a farce, and if they did not help do something about it, the consequences would be theirs. Many in her audience already knew as much, but they had never heard anybody say as much—especially a seventy-three-year-old with thick spectacles and her hair in a bun. Sabin said that out of twenty major causes of death in the United States, Colorado exceeded the national average in thirteen. The state had unusually high incidences of diphtheria, bubonic plague, and typhoid, and the state’s milk inspection procedures were substandard.
In attempting to solve these crises, Sabin was aghast at the extent to which Colorado’s health programs were in disarray. The state’s health laws, passed on statehood in 1876, had not been changed in decades. There was no legal authorization for public-health nursing, for programs benefitting new mothers, for child health, or for crippled children. There was no basis for accepting federal funds. Health activities were scattered through the various state departments. There was no authorization for multiple-county health agencies.
Clearly, new legislation was needed, but changes in the rules were mired in bickering, petty politics, and compromises. Sabin set out to win over the Denver Medical Society—especially its older “graybeard” members. Somehow, they found it difficult to say “no” to her. One said, “the trouble is that she’s years ahead of us in her thinking.” Another said, “She says such earthshaking things in such a soft voice.”
Seventy-five years old at the end of 1946, Sabin traveled throughout Colorado from border to border at her own expense to stir up support for health reforms. Her slogan was “Health to Match our Mountains.” Sabin was able to talk with Coloradans not only about health care issues but also about the condition of crops, the new town hall, and how many children were in their family. Residents wondered how somebody as comfortable as an old shoe could carry so much dignity at the same time. Some officials regarded Sabin’s ideas as too radical and too much change all at once. In state governmental circles some politicians opposed what are now known as the Sabin Health Bills. But she had won over the public, and those officials who faltered were voted out of office in the election of 1946, including Governor Vivian. Sabin’s proposed health reforms had become a political force, and a severe polio epidemic that year provided further evidence of their necessity. Following intense jockeying in the legislature, opposition softened and five of the six Sabin Bills passed the legislature in 1947.
The new laws provided for the organization of the State Health Department and a fair appointment process for its advisory board, as well as increased funding for hospitalized tuberculosis patients. They secured federal funds for hospital construction and the ability for multiple counties with limited resources to pool federal, state, and local funds to organize health services.
After her victories in improving health care statewide, Sabin targeted another obstacle to better public health: home-rule cities such as Denver were not required to become part of a state health unit, and Denver’s health department was mired in politics. The city had no sanitary engineer; its sewage plant was operated by the parks department; milk quality requirements were well below national standards; the city’s alleys were trash-strewn; garbage collection was sporadic at best, and rats and mice proliferated. Facing all of these challenges, J. Quigg Newton based part of his mayoral campaign on public health reform, and after winning the office he named Sabin as his manager of health and charities in December 1947. As was expected by this time in her life, Sabin turned the city’s health operations around quickly. She successfully lobbied for the construction of a new sewage treatment plant, increased the rate of garbage collection, expanded rat-elimination efforts, and helped raise quality standards for milk and dairy. Denver’s tuberculosis rate fell by half during her tenure.
By this time the Sabin Health Laws were also beginning to have a noticeable effect. Pasteurization of all milk products was made mandatory on June 1, 1949, and new codes were adopted for water supplies and plumbing. The state also began studying stream pollution in an attempt to set better standards for sewage treatment. The Sabin Health Laws were expanded in 1949 to cover a variety of food production issues, including limiting the amount of fat in hamburger and giving the State Health Department the authority to inspect plants handling milk for human consumption.
Having significantly improved and extended the lives of thousands of Coloradans through her relentless public health crusades, Sabin retired a second time in 1951. In October 1953 she died of a heart attack just before her eighty-second birthday. In 1959 her statue went up in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, DC—a small but noteworthy tribute to a woman who contributed so much to the advancement of American medicine.
Adapted from “Doctor Florence: Colorado’s Woman of the Decade,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 15, no. 1 (1995).