Sunday, September 12, 1999

Working to keep the good name of Sabin

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Heloisa Sabin is listening.

        First, she listens to John Williams. The president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce is telling Dr. Albert Sabin's widow how the convention center came to be named for her late husband. He says Dr. Charles Barrett, a civic titan, was determined to honor the man who invented the polio vaccine.

        “The convention center was simply the most impressive thing we had at the time.” Nearly 15 years later, the Dr. Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center is no longer quite so impressive.

Here's the rub
        A new generation of civic titans say the Elm Street facility is too small, and they're trying to raise about $400 million to expand it. Delta Air Lines agreed to kick in the first $30 million. For naming rights. This is the reason we are sitting around a table at the Bankers Club behind cobb salads that are roughly the size of Montana.

        Todd Portune, chairman of Cincinnati City Council's naming committee, says carefully, “I would not be prepared to embrace a change if Dr. Sabin's presence here is diminished.”

        From across the expanse of crisp white tablecloth, Jim Anderson, CEO of Children's Hospital, says more simply, “I brag about Dr. Sabin regularly.” As well he might.

        The worldwide rout of polio began in 1939, when the physician came to work as an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Sabin invented — but never held a patent on — the oral vaccine. He did not make any money from it.

        “Albert was very careful not to let his name be used commercially,” says his widow. “But he was proud to give it to Cincinnati.”

        She is not charmed by the idea of the Delta-Sabin Convention Center. Or the Sabin-Delta Convention Center. “I know that I have no rights in this matter,” she says. “I know this convention center belongs to you, to the people. So I am very honored that you have asked me to be here.”

        She smiles.

        Everybody smiles back.

        Two Delta executives are hosting the luncheon. One of them, Dave Anderson, who's the district director here, already has visited Mrs. Sabin at her home in Washington, D.C. Now this discussion. Respectful. Friendly. Even emotional at times.

        Delta could have flourished a very big — a $30 million — stick. Instead, Mr. Anderson says he wants to pass along to Mrs. Sabin the words of his company's chief, Leo Mullin:

        “We will need to make certain that we treat this issue with respect and dignity — even elegance — as we move through this process.”

        So the process begins.

Starting fresh
        “If we were starting fresh,” Mr. Williams says, “what is the most logical tie? Dr. Sabin was not involved with the convention business here. But with medicine. Children.”

        Because I have no manners, I ask Children's Hospital's CEO directly, “Are you going to name the hospital for him?” Just as directly, he tells me no. “But I would like to strengthen the link between Dr. Sabin and the hospital.”

        Well, there are plenty of people around here who want a link. A big, impressive, heroic link between our city and the man who saved the lives of millions of people.

        Since word of the proposed name change surfaced, readers have been weighing in with eloquent rage. “Dr. Sabin gave back the summer to millions of children. I don't think it's too much to name a building for him. I think it's too little,” wrote a woman from Montgomery.

        So can we do more?

        Can we do better?

        Everything is on the table. (Except for the massive salads, which have been retired to the kitchen, nearly intact.) A street? An exhibit? A new building? A monument? A park?

        The men stood and shook hands, still talking about the possibilities.

        Heloisa Sabin was still listening.

        So are we all.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.