The Life of Florence Sabin

The Life of Florence Sabin

Author: Judith Kaye


This book celebrates a woman doctor who is relatively little known today even though she ‘was recognized by many as the foremost woman scientist of her time’. Somewhat short, the book nevertheless exhaustively explores what turns out to be the extraordinary achievements of Florence Sabin in the different phases of her professional life: as a leading researcher in the heydays of the famed Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and as a groundbreaking ‘crusading public health officer‘ in Colorado at the age of 79 years. This biography is ample testament to the ability and drive that propelled her, when there were very few women in medicine, to break new grounds in the profession. Tracking her long career which ‘spanned half a century’, the book chronicled how she carried out ‘exacting work‘, and it provided illustrative examples of the academic legacy she left behind as ‘resource for scientists who came after her’ (pages 7-9 and 76).


Sabin’s family life formed the basis of the book’s early biographical account of her life as it traces her childhood. The narrative particularly highlighted the early tragic events of her life, especially the death of her mother after childbirth, a misfortune that the author said resulted in a painful family separation whereby she was moved ‘from home to home and school to school’. The biography also detailed her educational progress from her first day at primary school, to her attendance at the ‘excellent’ Vermont Academy and Smith College where she majored in science. It was in college that, despite the discouraging prospects of female participation in medicine, the book said she decided to become a doctor. Her difficult early life experiences all went into moulding Sabin’s personality which was defined by a ‘determination‘ that motivated her countless professional achievements. To reflect the significance of her breakthroughs, the book referred to such deserved appointments as the first woman head of a Johns Hopkins department, and the first woman member of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research (pages 15-28).

Florence Rena Sabin Residence, 1325 Park Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21217. Baltimore Heritage on Flickr.

Sabin’s efforts to enter the now mixed Johns Hopkins Medical School was an interesting theme of the book in which the author highlighted the difficulty she faced in raising the tuition fees – something she eventually did by teaching science for three years. The book also chronicled her four years of medical school training during which the determining factor in her future career emerged – she became attached to microscopic examination of tissues under the guidance of the pathologist Franklin Mall. The book also described the two groundbreaking nervous system research studies she carried out at that time, one of which it celebrated as ‘a classic text‘ because she ‘made useful and unexpected discoveries about the structure of the lower part of the newborn’s brain’. These successes are the more remarkable because she attained them in the early 1900’s when very few women ventured into medicine and science because those ‘who wished to work as doctors and scientists faced many obstacles‘ (pages 29-33).

Vintage Baltimore Postcard, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Circa 1948. Joe Haupt on Flickr.

Although Sabin graduated as a doctor, it is interesting that she never practiced clinical medicine, her focus totally dominated by laboratory and research work. The author speculated that her disinterest in clinical medicine was the requirement it imposed of working under pressure, Sabin preferring ‘to have time to perform each task perfectly, to check her work, and to repeat a task if necessary’. It is also possible, the author argued, that her preference for laboratory work was her difficult internship year under a supervisor who ‘treated her badly‘ because he ‘did not believe that women should be doctors’. In chronicling her laboratory research career, the book tracked her achievements over the subsequent 23 years as she made original discoveries and published extensively on such topics as the human lymphatic system and the formation of blood vessels. The book also documented the recognition her work received as mirrored by the seventeen honorary degrees she was honoured with, and as reflected by her election as the first woman member of the National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists (pages 35-42 and 47).

CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It is remarkable that Sabin’s career, and her attainments, did not stop after she retired from the Johns Hopkins Hospital; on the contrary, as the book showed, she continued to produce similarly illustrious work after retirement. For example, the book described her work on tuberculosis at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research where it said she established a research legacy of carefully applying the scientific method, and of strictly reporting her findings ‘even when she thought they might be inaccurate’. The author pointed out that this research ‘did not lead directly to a cure of tuberculosis’, but she nevertheless maintained that it ‘did contribute to a better understanding of how the tubercle bacillus…develops and progresses’ (pages 51-54).

CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Perhaps the most far-reaching of Sabin’s achievements was the public health role she took on in Colorado, a feat made the more striking as she was in her old age at the time. The author explored how this work, as the head of a subcommittee on health, far removed from the familiar laboratory and deep in the sphere of politics, demonstrated her wide range of skills and her ability to adapt to different circumstances. The author described how Sabin approached her remit of evaluating the state’s outdated health laws by bringing to the task ‘skills she had developed during forty years of teaching and research‘, and ‘her experience in organizing people into an effective working group‘. The book painted a picture of Sabin, still full of energy and passion, as she carried out a scientific survey to map out the problems; tackled the issues of unhealthy foods and water; and implemented an essential tuberculosis screening programme. Her crowning glory however was the legislation she pushed froward to enforce her public health measures, something she did by travelling all round the state ‘giving speeches to hundreds in small towns’ (pages 10-13 and 60-62).

Florence Rena Sabin. Adam Fagen on Flickr.


This is an inspiring biography of a doctor who broke the mould in very remarkable ways to establish the credibility of female doctors as leaders in research and public health. An inspiration for generations of those who followed her, the marks she left are reflected in her numerous awards and her being the first woman to preside over a leading academic department and professional body. The author’s laudatory but non-fawning approach is refreshing for a biography, and the prose is simple and direct.

Overall assessment

This book is well-written and focused, and by applying simple prose and a focused narrative style, it brings to the fore the life of a remarkable female doctor.  The author describes a woman whose understated nature belies her enormous contributions. This book has successfully established Sabin’s primacy in the works she did, and I recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Twenty-first Century Books, New York, 1993
Number of chapters: 8
Number of pages: 80
ISBN: 9780805022995
Star rating: 4
Price: £19.70

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