Florence Rena Sabin achieved many firsts at Johns Hopkins University: she enrolled in the school of medicine in 1896, became the first female faculty member in 1902, and became the first female full professor in 1917. In 1924, she was the first woman elected president of the American Association of Anatomists, and the first female member of the Rockefeller Institute, as well as the first woman elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 1925.
Born in Colorado in 1871, Sabin and her sister were raised by her grandparents in Vermont after the death of their mother when she was seven. After graduating from Smith College, Sabin taught for several years to save money for medical school tuition at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 1901 while a medical student, she published the popular textbook, “An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain.” She earned an anatomy fellowship at Hopkins, and also studied the lymphatic system and immunology. After 25 years of studies and research at Hopkins, Sabin continue her immunology work in New York in 1925. As the head of the Department of Cellular Studies at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, she studied tuberculosis, the lymphatic system, as well as the blood vessels and cells.
Sabin has been memorialized at Johns Hopkins, the University of Colorado and Smith College. Smith College academic buildings form the science quad named for two female alumnae later admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical school: Sabin-Reed Hall, named after Florence Rena Sabin (class of 1893), and Dorothy Reed Mendenhall (class of 1895), Both women were classmates at Johns Hopkins Medical school during a time when women were just starting to be accepted into the university.
At 67, Sabin retired and returned to Colorado. However, her work in science was far from over. She became a fierce advocate for public health reforms. In 1947, Sabin said that she was chosen to chair a state subcommittee on health because the Governor had no interest in the idea of public health and appointed “an old lady” because he did not think she would be able to accomplish anything. In 1948, she became manager of health and charities for Denver, donating her salary to medical research. Her efforts ultimately led to the modernization of the public health system in Colorado and other states, known as the “Sabin Health Laws.” Sabin was the chairman of the Interim Board of Health and Hospitals of Denver, retiring again in 1951 to care for her sister.