Apparatus XY

Gender Praxes in the History of Chinese and Western Medicine

The Quiet Feminism of Dr. Florence Sabin: Helping Women Achieve in Science and Medicine.

by Patricia J.F. Rosof, St. Francis College[1]This research was made possible by a Library Resident Research Fellowship from the American Philosophical Society and a Margaret Storrs Grierson Scholar-in-Residence Fellowship from the Sophia Smith Collection. I would like to thank the staff of the APS and of the Sophia Smith Collection for their help and collegiality. I would also like to thank the archivists and librarians at the Rockefeller Archive Center, and the Alan Mason Chesney Archives, the Colorado Historical Society and the Denison Memorial Library of the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

1 Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953) began her medical career in 1900 with her graduation from Johns Hopkins Medical School. It was an auspicious time for a woman to begin a career in medicine in the United States. As Margaret Rossiter has pointed out, the period from 1880-1910, when Sabin was establishing her career, was an era when "new roles and opportunities were unfolding," only to be followed by a "new rigidity" (Women Scientists xvi). The century opened with great promise as women seemed to be gaining acceptance into the new medical schools and research institutes (Magner 456). Hopkins itself had opened its doors to both men and women in 1893 and it rapidly set the standard for medical education.

2 In many ways, Sabin would prove to be typical of her generation. As Penina Migdal Glazer and Miriam Slater note, the middle class, of which Sabin was a part, idealized "ambition, intelligence and hard work," and these were also the traits considered necessary for professional success (10). Friends, colleagues, former students all referred to Sabin's dedication to what at one point she referred to as "the Great God Work" (26 Aug. 1926 to Robert Cunningham, Cu-Doan #5, Cunningham, Robert S.#9, APS). Like her peers, Sabin believed in science as a meritocracy, and used the strategy of "superperformance" to prove her worth (Glazer and Slater 19). Choosing to make her career in medical research, Sabin benefited from scientists' commitment to the idea of the laboratory as "value-free" as well as by the newness of the field of laboratory research. With men uncertain about their ability to earn a living pursuing research, the field was initially accepting of women and more open than more established or lucrative professions to advancement based on merit. The Rockefeller Institute, as an example, had over sixteen percent of their hires in the years 1911-1920 as women (Glazer and Slater 18, 199, 138).

3 Under these favorable conditions, Sabin's career followed a positive arc. Taken under the wing of the respected Chairman of Anatomy at Johns Hopkins Medical, Dr. Franklin Paine Mall, she rose up the ranks to Associate Professor by his death in 1917. Although passed over for department chair in favor of her former student Dr. Lewis Weed, she nonetheless was promoted to Professor of Histology, the first woman to receive that rank at Hopkins. In 1925 she moved to the prestigious Rockefeller Institute as a full Member, again the first woman to receive that rank. She also served as first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists and was the first woman elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

4 Regardless of her personal success, however, Sabin proved unable to pave the way for further advances by other women. According to historian Ellen S. More, this failure can be explained by the "skewed sex ratio" of both Hopkins Medical and the Rockefeller Institute. With women under fifteen percent of the total, the successful ones were viewed as tokens and found themselves unable to shape the institution to benefit successors (7). As a researcher, and especially as a prominent woman whose work would be carefully scrutinized, Sabin had to concentrate on publishing and defending her results. Most men also had few opportunities to shape institutions but it was those who did, such as Simon Flexner at the Rockefeller Institute, and William Welch at Hopkins, who gained a lasting reputation and who determined the future shape of medicine (Glazer and Slater 136, 137). Sabin's inability to make institutional changes had repercussions for the women who followed.

5 Despite the odds against her, however, Sabin did seek to promote women's interests in medicine and scientific research. At the same time, she remained completely committed to the ideas of scientific objectivity and advancement by merit. She saw herself as a professional helping other women professionals achieve (Tuchman, 224).[2]Tuchman, explains that turn of the century professionals focused on "autonomous individuals joining together to protect their interests." Her goal was to get the best medical education for women so that they could fairly compete with men. This, she believed, had to be through the best coeducation available (4 Nov. 1931 to Martha Wager, U-We, APS). A committed feminist, Sabin believed strongly in the equality of women and rejected any idea of special need or privilege. In noting Simon Flexner's remarks at the luncheon in Sabin's honor on her receipt in 1929 of the Pictorial Review Achievement Award, she commented favorably on his "splendid speech" in which he described himself as a feminist who "believed in treating women exactly as he treated men with the same rigid requirements for high standards" (18 Dec. 1929 to Mary Sabin, Series I, Box 4, Folder 9, SSC). She had supported and worked for suffrage and contributed as well to the Philippine Campaign for Woman Suffrage (28 Dec. 1919 Sabin to Mrs. Mall on suffrage campaign, Sabin Papers, Box 1, 56, AMC and on Philippines Suffrage Campaign, 3 Feb. 1937 Carrie Chapman Catt to Sabin, National American Woman Suffrage, APS).[3]See for instance her description of working with Edith Hooker to send letters to all members of the Maryland legislature, 28 Dec. 1919 Sabin to Mrs. Mall, Sabin Papers, Box 1, 56, Alan Mason Chesney Archives, Baltimore MD.