Ellen Clara Sabin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Sabin, Ellen Clara (1850-1949)

A Wisconsin Educator

Ellen Clara Sabin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Noted Wisconsin educator, Ellen Clara Sabin, was one of the first women to attend the University of Wisconsin, enrolling in the regular school curriculum at a time when women, if allowed to attend at all, were confined to a separate course of study from men. As president of Milwaukee-Downer College, Sabin helped to strengthen women's higher education in the state, introducing new fields of study such as domestic science and physical education, supervising the construction of a new campus, and mediating the merger of the two women's colleges that became Milwaukee-Downer.

Ellen Clara Sabin was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on November 29, 1850. Soon after her birth Sabin's adventurous family headed west to California seeking their fortune in gold but returned to Wisconsin in 1854 and settled in Windsor. The oldest of 11 children, Sabin helped to educate her younger siblings until she enrolled, at the age of 16, in the teacher-training program at the University of Wisconsin in 1866.

While attending school, Sabin also taught in Sun Prairie. After three years of college, Sabin left without graduating, taking a position as a seventh-grade teacher in Madison. Sabin was soon appointed principal, at only 19 years old.

In 1872 Sabin left Wisconsin with her family for Eugene, Oregon. Within a year she had become principal of a tough frontier school in Portland, where she carried a police badge as a guarantee of safe passage when she visited students' homes. Sabin traveled abroad in 1885 to study European educational methods. Upon her return, Sabin accepted a position as superintendent of Portland Schools.

Her reputation as an effective administrator led the trustees of then-struggling Downer College for Women in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, to invite Sabin to assume the presidency in 1890. Despite the lower salary and prestige attached to the college, Sabin accepted, eagerly welcoming the opportunity to lead a women's institution. Downer College was soon flourishing.

Impressed with her work at Downer College, trustees at the Milwaukee Female College sought to lure Sabin away in 1894. Sabin, seeing the expediency of consolidating the resources of the two schools, successfully mediated the merger and supervised the construction of a campus for the newly formed Milwaukee-Downer College in 1895.

Sabin began immediately to reorganize the school curriculum of both the college and its high-school level seminary, launching a campaign for better facilities to study science, particularly domestic science. Not only did Sabin establish studies in domestic science, but she founded the nation's first degree program in the field in 1905. She also introduced the first course in occupational therapy to be offered in any college.

Although she never graduated from college, Sabin received honorary degrees from UW-Madison, Beloit College and Grinnell College. She was also instrumental in organizing the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs in 1896, a key source of funding for women's educational programs. Sabin presided over Milwaukee-Downer College for more than 20 years, finally retiring in 1921 at age 71. Sabin died in Madison on February 3, 1949.