She was born in the Colorado mining country, where her father was an engineer, but brought up in New England after the death of her mother. Hers was the first generation to benefit from the long struggle to open higher education to women. She graduated in early classes at Smith College and Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Unlike many women pioneering in the professions, she was fortunate to find a sympathetic mentor in her anatomy professor, Franklin Mall. He stimulated her interest in anatomy when the field was just beginning to be experimental rather than merely descriptive. Sabin proved an extremely talented researcher. She won one of four highly prized internships at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and eventually joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Sabin rose to the rank of full professor in 1917, the first woman in the university to achieve that rank.
She worked on embryology and did important research on the origins of the lymphatic system. She also brought back from Germany a new technique for non-toxic staining of cells. In 1925 she became the first woman elected to the National Academy of Science. She went on to do research in tuberculosis at the Rockefeller Institute. Although Sabin retired in 1938, in her seventies she took up another highly successful career, as a reforming public health official in her native state of Colorado.