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Dr. Laurie S. Zabin, family planning pioneer, dies

Dr. Laurie Schwab Zabin was the founding director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health.
Dr. Laurie Schwab Zabin was the founding director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health.(MORTIMER / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Dr. Laurie Schwab Zabin, a family planning pioneer who opened an early clinic in East Baltimore and later brought her work to a global audience, died of kidney failure May 11 at the Blakehurst Retirement Community. The former Pikesville resident was 94.

She had been a professor in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and was internationally known in the field of adolescent sexual health.

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Born in New York City, she was the daughter of Armand Schwab, who sold millinery goods, and his wife, Carol Heilner. She attended the Dalton School and earned a degree in English literature at Vassar College. She received a master’s degree from Harvard University and wrote a thesis on the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

She moved to Baltimore with her husband, Lewis H. Strauss, who was then a physics student at the Johns Hopkins University and the son of Lewis L. Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. They later divorced.

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She also studied at Hopkins and became a volunteer at Planned Parenthood of Maryland in 1951. She joined its board in 1954 and by the middle 1960s set up an East Baltimore community clinic at Ashland Avenue. She initially worked with other volunteers, including Annette “Netsie” Lieberman and Charlton Campbell.

“I remember her drawing sex education materials on the dining room table,” said her daughter, Jessica Strauss. “And yet, as her children, we never talked about sex with her."

Her daughter also said, “My mother was very proud of the clinic, and after the 1968 riots it was taken over and run by community physicians."

Imogene Moore, who worked at the clinic with Dr. Zabin, said: “She really cared about the community. We knew it as the first free family planning clinic in the neighborhood. I was 18 years old at the time and learned so much from her.”

She joined the board of the national Planned Parenthood in 1962 and was a co-founder of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a family planning research and advocacy group.

“My mother had the exceptional ability to identify the important core of any idea,” said her son, Dr. Lewis C. Strauss of Madison, Connecticut. “She had a saying on her desk: ‘There are 1,000 hacking at the branches of evil for every one striking at the root.’ ”

She decided she wanted to add to research in the family planning field and discussed the possibility at Johns Hopkins. Her academic background was in English literature, but she was determined to work in family planning. Dr. W. Henry Mosley, a Hopkins population dynamics professor, pointed to her lack of science courses, “It’s not that you are missing a prerequisite, you are missing every prerequisite.” She quickly took two courses, including one in bio statistics, and was admitted to the program.

Dr. Zabin earned a doctorate from the Bloomberg School at age 53 in 1979. She joined the faculty of the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health.

Dr. Zabin said in her doctoral dissertation that 50% of pregnancies in teenage girls ages 15 to 19 occurred within six months of becoming sexually active. She showed that 20% occurred in the first month.

“Her work was transformative," said Dr. Robert Blum, a Bloomberg School professor. “It led the way to focusing on adolescent reproductive health.”

The Hopkins statement said that in 1981, Dr. Zabin collaborated with Hopkins pediatrician Janet Hardy to found a sex education and contraception clinic for East Baltimore high school students. The clinic participants’ pregnancy rate dropped 15% within three years.

Dr. Zabin frequently served as an expert witness and testified before local, state and federal government bodies in support of adolescents’ access to family planning services. She was instrumental during the 1980s in securing the rights of minors to obtain contraception without parental consent, a Hopkins statement said.

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She also taught public health students.

“In this role, she inspired generations of students, many of whom returned to lead Public Health efforts in their home countries,” the Hopkins statement said. “She published extensively on teenage sexuality and the consequences of unplanned pregnancy; her research on adolescent sexual behavior and advocacy for reproductive rights has had major impact on public policy around the globe.”

In 1999, she was the founding director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, also at Hopkins.

“As a member of the medical and public health faculties at Johns Hopkins, her research and advocacy were instrumental in transforming public attitudes toward contraceptive access for adolescents,” the Hopkins statement said.

She was the institute’s director until 2002.

“Her intellectual rigor, principled advocacy, and humanitarian spirit will continue to serve all of us as a guiding force within the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute here at the Bloomberg School and across the Johns Hopkins community,” Dr. Ellen J. MacKenzie, dean of the Bloomberg School, said in a statement.

Alfred Sommer, the Bloomberg School’s dean emeritus, said, Dr. Zabin’s contributions to reproductive health “changed the field forever; the Gates Institute stands as an institutional memorial."

She won many honors, including the 2013 Johns Hopkins University Heritage Award.

In 1982 she began a Schwab family reunion of all 152 descendants of her grandparents. The event gathers members of the family who were scattered in France and the United States, and other places, after four Schwab sons left the Alsace region of France to avoid serving in the German army. They came to the U.S. but left their sisters behind in France.

She was married to advertising executive James B. Zabin. He died in 1987.

In addition to her son and daughter, survivors include another daughter, Jeremy Strauss Stock of Brandy Station, Virginia; two stepdaughters, Ann Z. Korelitz of New York City and Barbara Novick, also of New York; a sister, Jacqueline Isler-Schwab of Zurich; 14 grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

A memorial gathering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is being planned.

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