Thursday, February 25, 1999

Dr. Sabin gave his name; he did not sell it




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Heloisa Sabin is a lovely woman. White hair, beautifully styled. Dark eyes. Expressive, well-maintained hands. She is much too cultured and well-bred to say it. So I will.

        This just stinks.

        There's a plan in the works to sell off the name of the convention center. And the convention center already has a perfectly good name. A heroic name, in fact. The Albert B. Sabin Convention Center was dedicated in 1986 to the man sometimes called the Patron Saint of Mothers for his spectacularly successful polio vaccine.

        “I was very surprised,” Dr. Sabin's widow says in the soft accents of her native Brazil. “I did not know that this thing, this naming could be taken back. I am crushed. I believe that this would hurt him so.”

        Her late husband, she says, considered Cincinnati his home. “Whenever he was asked where he was from,” his widow says, “Cincinnati was always the answer.”

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        In a phone conversation from her home in Washington, D.C., she wonders if Cincinnati has forgotten him. “Is it possible that people no longer remember what he has done?”

        No, Mrs. Sabin. It is not possible.

        Cincinnati Enquirer readers are outraged.

        “He is a legend,” Barbara Wittenbaum of Blue Ash said. “He was alive to receive the award, and it should not be taken away from him. Look at the lives he saved.”

        And anguish he spared us. “I remember taking care of people in iron lungs,” said Mary Jane Fleming, who was a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital during the 1940s. “This was a terrible way to live.”

        “Is there anything we can do?” asked Mary Ann Kroger, who worked for the Health Department, holding out spoons of vaccine syrup during Sabin Sundays.

        We can complain. To our elected city and county officials. We can tell them that some things are not for sale. We can shame them. Maybe. It's worth a try.

        “He was often asked to give speeches — for pay — at marvelous places,” Mrs. Sabin says. “But he would never do this. He was very careful not to allow his name to be used commercially.”

        But this convention center in his hometown, that was a different matter. “Thrilled,” she says. “He was thrilled. Albert believed this would mean that he and Cincinnati were forever linked.”

        And wouldn't we like to be forever linked to Albert Sabin? Wouldn't we like to have bragging rights to him? We should plaster his name all over the place. We're always manufacturing things to be proud about — the first widget west of the Alleghenies, some movie star who spent an hour and a half here.

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        He is real. He is a giant. And he is ours. He came here in 1939 to the Children's Hospital Research Foundation at the University of Cincinnati, which would be his base for the next 30 years. This is where he meticulously bred the virulence out of the three types of polio virus that cause paralysis.

        It was here that he tested early batches of the vaccine on himself and his family. He traveled from Cincinnati to Europe, Asia, Russia and Latin America to personally disseminate the vaccine. It was not enough that he would discover a serum — he insisted that his discovery save “all the world's children.”

        He refused to patent his life-saving discovery and made not a dime from it himself. Upon his death in 1993, President Clinton called Dr. Sabin “one of the great heroes of American medicine.”

        Dr. Sabin left his medals and certificates of honor to the University of Cincinnati. He bequeathed all his papers and notes to UC's Cincinnati Medical Heritage Center. “He wanted his research to be available for all,” says the center's director, Billie Broaddus.

        Whatever he had, he gave. Including his name.

        Rename Sabin? His wife hopes no
        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.