In Memory of





Obituary for Thomas D. Sabin MD

Thomas Sabin was born in Webster, Massachusetts in 1936. Early in life he showed scientific curiosity and an experimentalist’s flair for biological investigation. Whether these explorations are better characterized as those of an Audubonian naturalist or Wellsian Dr. Moreau is forever lost in the mists of time. But the passion to study life, man, and medicine resulted in a path to Medford, Massachusetts where he graduated from Tufts College of Liberal Arts in 1958 and Tufts University School of Medicine receiving his M.D. in 1962. He spent the next two years as a resident in Internal Medicine at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital then entered his Neurology residency at Boston City Hospital (BCH) from 1964-1967 under the watchful eye of Dr. Derek Denny-Brown. That watchful eye was the center of a hurricane force of personality and neuroscientific thinking that tempered the young Dr. Sabin in a cauldron of discovery and cult of personality. Tom Sabin was to emerge with a ferocious intellect but a gentleness of spirit contributing to neurological care and investigation.

In 1967, Tom Sabin entered the Uniformed Service as a member of the US Public Health Service Hospital at Carville, Louisiana and spent three years caring for patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). During that time, he made clinical observations and considered causal patterns that linked the neurological presentation of sensory loss in Mycobacterium leprae infection to the temperature of the underlying tissues. In doing so, he overturned the consensus thinking of this disease in a flash, showing an early genius for using naturalist observation to advance human understanding of disease. The brilliance and importance of this contribution is second only to the young physician’s clearly demonstrated ability to make detailed clinical observations and link them to far deeper and more profound neuroscience processes. In 1970 he returned to Boston to the BCH Neurological Unit, working with Dr. Norman Geschwind. In the tradition of the Neurological Unit, he was a member of the faculty of all three Boston medical schools. This engagement remained even after BCH became solely a Boston University affiliate in 1975. He rapidly rose through the faculty ranks becoming a full professor in both Neurology and Psychiatry in 1981. He was the Director of the Neurological Unit for 227 years (1975-1997) until the dissolution of the BCH Neurological Unit as part of the merger of University Hospital and BCH. The Neurological Unit in these years was characterized by a tolerance for unique individuality as long as there was commensurate contribution to Neurology. This was the consequence of Tom Sabin’s leadership. As the leader of a medical unit that served the poorest and most dispossessed patients, Sabin embodied what Francis Peabody meant when he stated: “The care of the patient begins with caring about the patient.” He then returned to Tufts University and to New England Medical Center/Tufts Medical Center where, for the first two decades of the new century, he continued to train a new generation of neurologists and mentor the next generation of neurological leaders. This was a full second career that commenced at the age of 62.

With a career in medicine that lasted almost 60 years, Tom Sabin’s impact and contributions to neurology were enormous. He created a body of many dozens of scholarly writings, practiced the remarkable art of examining, diagnosing and discussing patients at Grand Rounds and Professor’s Rounds, and caring for uncountable people suffering from neurological diseases. His residents and colleagues past and present knew that watching him examine a patient at the bedside had the richness of experience that is like hearing Mozart conduct his own masterpieces. Beyond being a master of the classical neurological arts he was also among the first to see the new directions in the treatment and diagnosis of neurological disease. He saw and employed the value and power in the “newfangled” technology of the CT scan to transform neurology and was a pioneer in the creation of neuroimaging.

Tom Sabin was a living legend. At once recognizable by his avuncular, affable nature, and bow-tied appearance, he was a neurological force of nature with profound thoughts about the nature of man revealed in the diseases of the brain and mind. In the tradition of classic neurologists, of whom his colleagues considered him more an institution than a simply a great clinician, Tom Sabin was a renaissance man. He had a unique capacity for exploring the human condition as a physician, as a sailor standing before the mast reading the skies and seas and former Commodore of the Manchester Yacht Club, and mentor and molder of his children, grandchildren and many students. He was active in all of these domains to the end, encouraging, cajoling and challenging everyone he touched with discussions of literature, science, opera, classical music, and philosophical musings. Typically, opera could be heard in the background of a casual phone call. Even when he finally gave up actively sailing his boat Arion at the age of 85 after 23 years cruising the coast of Maine and a Marion to Bermuda Race in 1985 with his family as crew, he became committed to his newfound challenge of hand splicing halyards and sheets. Few could outplay him at Scrabble, backgammon, billiards or solving crossword and 3-D puzzles, but family and friends constantly enjoyed the challenge of doing so, not just for the competition but always for the companionship and caring human interactions.

One of his former students and subsequent colleagues described Tom, “His delight in the exploration of the human brain and all that it tells us about the human condition has been one of the great journeys that I have been privileged to take with Tom. Over many years we have prowled the wards of the Neurological Unit, walked the streets of Boston debating the value proposition of religion, eaten (too) many fried fish meals while observing the patterns of local social economies, and at times stood athwart history yelling stop. Tom has taught me neurology, provided a rich reading list and most importantly shown by example how to live a moral and ethical life with dignity and good form. Friend, mentor and companion philosopher-king: Thank you Tom Sabin.”

Thomas Sabin died January 28, 2024 at Tufts Medical Center following a brief illness. He was the beloved father of Tina Sabin Governo (David) of Waban, Douglas G. Sabin (Nikki) of Marblehead and Paul C. Sabin (Caroline) of Cambridge He was preceded in death by his wife Joyce N. Sabin in 2001 and survived by fiancé and long-time companion Lane C. Tylec and brother Willam F. Sabin (Mary) of Boylston, MA. He adored his eight grandchildren Paulina C. Sterpe, Emeline A. Sterpe (Tina), George F. Sabin, Henry D. Sabin, Ann L. Sabin, Lucy N. Sabin (Doug), Michael T. Sabin and Jocelyn M. Sabin (Paul) and step-grandchildren Sarah Governo Allar, Ben Governo Allar (Katie) and great-granddaughter Sage Allar (Tina).

Visiting hours will be held Thursday, February 1, 2024 from 4-8PM at the Burke and Blackington Funeral Home, West Newton. Relatives and friends are invited to bring a written memory of Tom to leave with the family. Funeral Services will be private for the family on a later date.

In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to Tufts Medical Center in support of the Neurology Department. Gifts can be given online at: noting Dr. Sabin at bottom of the form under “Tribute Information (Optional).” Donations in check form should be made out to “Tufts Medical Center” noting Dr. Sabin in the memo line and mailed to: Tufts Medical Center Development Office, 800 Washington Street, #231, Boston, MA 02111”