Dr. Florence R. Sabin: A Woman of Firsts

Apr 3, 2019

Meet the first woman to hold a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Florence Rena Sabin was born in Central City, Colorado on on November 9, 1871. 

She was the second daughter of Serena Miner Sabin, a schoolteacher, and George K. Sabin, a mining engineer. After her mother died of puerperal fever when Sabin was seven, she and her older sister Mary lived in Denver, Chicago, and Vermont.

Both sisters attended Vermont Academy, where Florence showed an early talent for math and science. She attended Smith College, majoring in zoology, and it was there she was encouraged to study medicine at Johns Hopkins’ new co-educational medical school. After graduating with a B.S. in 1893, Sabin taught high school for three years to earn enough money to fund her first year of medical training. She entered the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1896.

A Career of Firsts

After receiving her MD in 1900, Sabin became one of the first two female interns at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Later, Sabin received a postgraduate fellowship in anatomy under Franklin P. Mall and became an assistant in anatomy in 1902. This would be the first faculty position at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to be held by a woman.

Yet again, in 1917, Sabin accomplished another first, becoming the first woman at Johns Hopkins to be appointed to a full professorship.

In 1924, she became the first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists.

She remained at Johns Hopkins until 1925, when she accepted an invitation to become the first full-time female faculty member at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, where she would also become the first woman to head a department.

Also in 1925, Sabin became the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Mentorship by Franklin Mall

Franklin P. Mall, M.D., was the first professor of anatomy at Johns Hopkins. Sabin attributed much of her early success in medicine to the mentorship provided by Mall, who became Sabin's mentor, advocate, and intellectual role model while she was his student. He encouraged her pursuit of “pure” (rather than applied) science, and suggested projects that would help establish her research reputation.

Much of The Florence R. Sabin Collection consists of correspondence from 1903 to 1941 between Sabin and Mabel (Glover) Mall, Franklin’s wife. The correspondence “reveals the close friendship Sabin enjoyed with the Mall family and provides a glimpse of the early years at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the work of the Anatomical Laboratory.”

Her Work

Johns Hopkins

While at Johns Hopkins, Sabin did important work on the origins of the lymphatic system, demonstrating that its structures were formed from the embryo’s veins rather than from other tissues (as other researchers believed at the time). She also perfected the technique of supravital staining, allowing her to investigate the origins of blood cells, blood vessels, and connective tissue.

The Rockefeller Institute

While at the Rockefeller Institute, Sabin established the Department of Cellular Studies. She led research on the pathology of tuberculosis as part of a consortium of researchers working with the Medical Research Committee of the National Tuberculosis Association. During her thirteen years at Rockefeller, Sabin made major contributions to the understanding of tuberculosis, most notably for her discovery of the origin and processes of immune system responses to various chemical fractions isolated from the tuberculosis bacteria. Sabin remained at the Rockefeller Institute until her retirement in 1938.

Still Crusading Post-Retirement

Sabin returned to Colorado after her retirement, where she became a crusader for public health. 

There, she chaired the Health Committee of Colorado’s Post-War Planning Committee as well as the Interim Board of Health and Hospitals of Denver, and became the Manager of the Denver Department of Health and Charities. Under her watch, Denver’s tuberculosis incidence was reduced from 54.7 to 27 per 100,000 people and the syphilis frequency from 700 to 60 per 100,000 people within two years.

Sabin also helped establish the politically independent State Department of Health in Colorado, served as health commissioner for the city of Denver, and, in 1951, received a Lasker Award for her work.

Sabin died in Denver on October 3, 1953.


Image via The Smithsonian.

This story was made possible by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Without your continued support, these stories would not be possible. Please donate to The Foundation to keep our collective legacy as women in medicine alive.