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Laurie Schwab Zabin, expert on family planning and adolescent sexual behavior, dies at 94

Dr. Laurie Schwab Zabin (Bill Denison/Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)

The day after she gave birth to her first child in 1951, Laurie Schwab Strauss was apprehensive, if not alarmed, when her obstetrician entered her hospital room in Baltimore and sat at her bedside for what clearly was a serious talk.

“I need your help,” he began. Then he described the urgent need for poor women in inner-city Baltimore to have access to contraception, which was still a controversial issue at that time.

It wasn’t a typical request for a well-born young woman who had just received a master’s degree in English literature from Radcliffe College. But the obstetrician, Alan Guttmacher, had already established a friendship with her during her pregnancy, and he was aware of her interest in women’s rights to make their own decisions, including around childbearing.

The conversation turned out to be a life-changing event for both doctor and patient, who later became professionally known as Laurie Schwab Zabin.

Guttmacher’s name and his mission were little known at the time, but he would soon become the nation’s leading proponent of family planning. Dr. Zabin — she later received a PhD in population dynamics — threw herself into full-time volunteer work with Planned Parenthood. After Guttmacher’s death in 1974, she was among the founders of the Guttmacher Institute, which serves as a global data-collection center on abortion and contraception policies.

Dr. Zabin died May 11 at 94 at a retirement home in Towson, Md. The cause was kidney failure, said a daughter, Jessica Strauss.

Dr. Zabin spent nearly three decades teaching at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, now the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she was a professor emeritus.

Among her most significant achievements was helping obtain an initial grant of $20 million in 1999 from the Gates Foundation to establish the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the public health school. (Subsequent Gates Foundation grants for the institute totaled more than $200 million, according to former dean Alfred Sommer.)

In her later years, Dr. Zabin traveled to more than a dozen countries, including India and China, to help establish women’s health clinics. She developed an almost visceral fervor for taking contraceptive options to women in remote parts of the world.

“What made me passionate,” she told a Vassar College alumni publication, “was seeing the power of family planning in giving women control over their lives, a power which, once exercised in one dimension of life, can then reach into others.”

Laurie Denise Schwab was born in Manhattan on April 9, 1926. Her father, who had emigrated from France, operated a prosperous import business.

She graduated in 1943 from the private Dalton School in Manhattan and in 1946 from Vassar, then a woman’s college, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She was at the top of her class at Vassar and won a scholarship to attend Radcliffe, where she received a master’s degree in English literature in 1947.

She married Lewis H. Strauss in 1948 and moved to Baltimore the following year. Her husband was the son of a politically connected banker, Lewis L. Strauss, a member and future chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission at the dawn of the atomic age. The family attended occasional private lunches with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at her father-in-law’s farm in Virginia, where Eisenhower and the elder Strauss owned a breeding bull together.

When her first child was born, Laurie Strauss had already completed two years of study toward a doctorate in English at Hopkins. After her encounter with Guttmacher, she abruptly changed course and began her volunteer work with Planned Parenthood, where Guttmacher later became president.

In 1979, she completed her PhD at the Hopkins School of Public Health. She wrote articles in professional journals and co-wrote two books on adolescent sexuality.

Her first marriage ended in divorce. In 1963, she married James B. Zabin, the president of a New York advertising firm. He died in 1987. In addition to her daughter, of Baltimore, survivors include two other children from her first marriage, Lewis C. Strauss of Madison, Conn., and Jeremy Stock of Brandy Station, Va.; two stepdaughters, Ann Korelitz and Barbara Novick, both of Manhattan; a sister; 14 grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

After her retirement in 2010, Dr. Zabin continued to work in family planning in the Baltimore area. Once, when she was leading a discussion on sexuality with a group of single mothers, the women began asking one another whether they remembered what they were wearing when they had their first sexual experience.

One of the women turned to Dr. Zabin and asked, impishly, whether she remembered what she was wearing.

“I certainly do,” she replied with aplomb. “It was a long white dress with lots of lace.”

Jenkins, a freelance reporter, died in 2019.

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