Florence Rena Sabin Biography (1871-1953)

anatomist, biologist

Florence Sabin was born in the mining town of Central City, Colorado, to Vermont natives. Her paternal grandfather had been a Vermont country doctor; herfather had studied medicine for two years before following the gold and silver rush West as a mining engineer. Her mother switched teaching posts from theSouth to Colorado during the Civil War. After her mother's death, when Florence was four, the girl attended boarding schools, first in Denver and then near relatives in Illinois and Vermont. She attended Smith College in Massachusetts with her sister, Mary, where she studied mathematics and zoology, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 1893.

That same year, the Johns Hopkins Medical School opened, thanks to the fundsraised by a group of Baltimore women who had stipulated that the school mustadmit women on an equal footing with men. After teaching for three years, Sabin could afford to enter the medical school in 1896. At Johns Hopkins, Sabinwas greatly influenced by the prominent anatomy professor Franklin Mall, whoencouraged her talent and inclination for research. While a student, Sabin constructed a three-dimensional model of a newborn infant's lower and mid brain, with an accompanying lab manual. Both became widely used in medical schools.

Sabin received her medical degree in 1900 and was appointed in 1901 to a fellowship at Hopkins created for her by the same group of Baltimore women. Thusbegan her twenty-five-year career of medical research and teaching at Hopkins, where she progressed from assistant to associate professor to first femalefull professor (of histology) in 1917. In her earlier years at Hopkins, Sabininvestigated the structure and development of the lymphatic system, which was poorly understood at the time. Most scientists thought that the lymph vessels originated in tissue spaces and grew toward the veins. Using very small pig embryos she collected from a nearby slaughterhouse and injecting their lymph vessels with dye, Sabin convincingly demonstrated that the lymphatics startas buds from the veins and grow outward in a continuing series of buds. Shealso showed that the lymph system was one-way, the lymph vessels being closedat their ends. Sabin's series of published papers on her findings in 1916 established her scientific reputation.

Sabin's lymphatics investigations led her to a study of the origins of bloodcells and vessels. Sabin observed in a live chick embryo under a microscope the actual formation of the blood vessels, followed by the red and white bloodcells, and then the first heartbeat. Sabin also introduced, in the 1920s, the technique of "supravital" staining--staining of living cells with dyes, which made it possible to distinguish certain types of cells from others for thefirst time in living tissue. The supravital staining research, in turn, ledSabin to a study of cells (monocytes) involved in immune reactions, especially against the tuberculosis bacillus.

In 1925, Sabin left Johns Hopkins and continued her work at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. There, she directed a laboratory dedicated to the investigation of cellular immune response, particularlyin tuberculosis. While directing her staff's collaboration in an inter-institutional, inter-disciplinary effort to identify a tuberculin-resistant substance, Sabin continued her valuable original research on the formation of antibodies.

Required to retire in 1938 at the age of sixty-seven, Sabin moved back to Denver to live with her sister Mary. There, in the late 1940s, she applied her legendary enthusiasm and energy to reform Colorado's archaic public health laws. In October 1953, weakened by several years of caring for her failing sister, Sabin died of a heart attack in her living room chair.

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