Letter from the Dean
Laurie Schwab Zabin, PhD ’79
I write with great sadness to tell you that Laurie Schwab Zabin, PhD ’79, emerita professor of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Bloomberg School, passed away Monday, May 11, 2020. Laurie, an internationally recognized expert on adolescent pregnancy, abortion, and sexual behavior, was 94.
After spending more than 30 years with Planned Parenthood of Maryland, from her volunteer days in the 1950s through the early 1980s, she launched a second career as a member of the medical and public health faculties at Johns Hopkins, where her research and advocacy were instrumental in transforming public attitudes toward contraceptive access for adolescents.
Born Laurie Schwab on April 1, 1926 in New York City, she studied English literature to earn a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Harvard University. After marrying Lewis Straus in 1948, she came to Baltimore, where she was a PhD candidate in English at Johns Hopkins University. After divorcing, she married James Zabin in 1963.
Dr. Zabin’s obstetrician at Johns Hopkins Hospital was Alan Guttmacher, later a national leader in family planning and reproductive health activism. At his urging, Laurie began volunteering with Planned Parenthood of Maryland in 1951 and later served with Guttmacher on the organization’s board of directors. She led efforts to establish the Guttmacher Institute, a leading national policy and research organization committed to reproductive health rights and access.
In 1975, she met with W. Henry Mosley, MD, MPH ’65, chair of Population Dynamics at what was then the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, to request admission to the department’s PhD program. With impressive leadership credentials in Planned Parenthood, she wanted a solid research foundation to help her more effectively reach adolescents and prevent unintended pregnancies. Yet her graduate background in English literature led Mosley to tell her, “It’s not that you are missing a prerequisite, you are missing every prerequisite.”
Nonetheless, Mosley admitted her based on her experience, intellectual ability, and strong motivation. She earned her PhD from the School in 1979 at the age of 53.
While Laurie was a member of the medical school’s Gynecology-Obstetrics faculty in the early 1980s, her findings—that 50% of pregnancies in teenaged girls ages 15 to 19 occurred within six months of becoming sexually active, and 20% occurred in the first month—made national headlines and energized public health efforts to establish school-based contraceptive clinics.
With Hopkins pediatrician Janet Hardy, she showed that the pregnancy rate among participants in a sex education and contraception clinic for East Baltimore secondary school students dropped 15% within three years.
Laurie’s frequent testimony in support of adolescents’ access to family planning services was instrumental during the 1980s in securing the rights of minors to obtain contraception without parental consent.
She transferred her primary appointment to Population Dynamics in the School of Public Health in 1986. Laurie was the founding director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, established in 1999 with funding from the William H. Gates Foundation.
As director until 2002, Laurie led the Institute’s work to advance family planning and reproductive health in the developing world. Amy Tsui, PhD, who succeeded Laurie as Gates Institute director, credited Laurie for leading “the reproductive health community and its leaders, both in and outside the U.S., in ways few individuals have—with impactful research, mentoring, and advocacy.”
Laurie’s many honors include the Planned Parenthood of Maryland’s Margaret Sanger Award, the Carl A. Schultz Award of the American Public Health Association, and the Irvin M. Cushner Award of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. The Bloomberg School established a scholarship in her honor, and she received the Johns Hopkins University Heritage Award in 2013.
Dr. Zabin is survived by a son, Lewis Strauss, two daughters, Jeremy Strauss Stock and Jessica Strauss, two step-daughters, Ann Korelitz and Barbara Novick, 14 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren.
We extend our heartfelt condolences to Laurie’s colleagues, students, and family. Current pandemic conditions preclude a funeral, but the Bloomberg School will organize a tribute in the near future.
If you would like to make a contribution to honor Laurie’s memory, please donate online or by check to the Laurie Schwab Zabin Scholarship Fund in Population, Family and Reproductive Health.
Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD ’79, ScM ’75
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor