Thursday, March 29, 2001

Dr. Albert Sabin

A proper place for his name

        In 1977, a dusty little patch of grass on Third Street between Plum and Elm streets was named the Albert B. Sabin Park. We honored the man who conquered polio with crabgrass and a couple of benches.

        And only temporarily.

        Dr. Sabin's widow, Heloisa, looked for the little park when she came to town Tuesday and found the on-ramp for Interstates 71 and 75 south off Third Street is in its place.

        We tried again in 1986 with the Albert B. Sabin Convention Center. Not the right place. Not really. He was not the Patron Saint of Tourists. He was the man who saved a billion children from polio. This was just our best new building when the late Dr. Charles Barrett threw his considerable weight into a plan to honor Dr. Sabin.

        It's what we had.

Bragging rights

        In 1999, Delta Air Lines agreed to pay $30 million for the naming rights to an expanded convention center. The Delta-Sabin Convention Center? The Sabin-Delta Convention Center? His charming widow was not charmed.

        Dr. Sabin, who never held a patent on the oral vaccine, didn't make a dime from it and steadfastly refused to allow his name to be used commercially. “But he loved Cincinnati, and I know he would want what is best for the people here,” she said at the time. “This is a lot of money.”

        She flew here from her home in Washington, D.C., in September 1999 for a luncheon with influential public and private officials. Perhaps, the men told her, this is our chance to do something better, more fitting.

        From across an expanse of crisp white tablecloth, Jim Anderson, CEO of Children's Hospital, told her simply, “I brag about Dr. Sabin regularly.” And he went back to his board of directors and suggested it would make sense to extend the bragging rights to the entire institution.

"Dad's guinea pigs'

        So Tuesday night, a $23 million education center with an auditorium, library and conference rooms was dedicated, very near where Dr. Sabin began his work in 1939.

        “By naming our education center for him, we keep alive the memory of a scientist and physician whose research improved the health of children around the world,” said the brochure. Mrs. Sabin tucked one in a bag with the oversized scissors and a scrap of the ribbon she had been asked to cut.

        Dr. Sabin's daughters, Amy and Deborah, who were 5 and 7 years old when they became “my dad's guinea pigs”, were there too. Asked if she remembered those early days, Deborah laughed and said, “You don't forget all those throat swabs and carrying a cup to school for stool samples.”

        Her father was meticulously breeding the virulence out of the three types of polio virus that cause paralysis. He traveled from Cincinnati to Europe, Asia, Russia. It was not enough that he would develop a serum — he insisted that his work save “all the world's children.”

        Young docs, wrestling with diseases we haven't heard of yet, will have a subtle, daily nudge, a reminder of why they're in this building. And Cincinnati can remind itself that the iron lung died here. And a generation lived — without the threat of a murderous, crippling disease — because of what one man did in our city.

        The Albert B. Sabin, M.D., Education Center at Children's Hospital Medical Center.

        We finally got it right.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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