Dr. Virginia Apgar earned her medical degree in 1933, graduating 4th in her class from Columbia University. Completing a surgical residency she was discouraged from going into the field as women had not been able to be successful surgeons due to gender bias and she was steered toward the new field of anesthesiology.
After studying with well-known anesthesiologists she returned to Columbia as the director of the division of anesthesia and as an attending anesthetist but was met with resistance from other physicians as they felt her specialty wasn’t equal to theirs. After close to ten years the medical community finally saw the value of her work and Columbia created an academic research department in the area and she was appointed the first female full professor at the school.
As part of her work she began studying the effects on a newborn of the anesthesia that was given to a mother during labor and she developed a standardized method for evaluating a newborn’s transition to life outside the womb.
The Apgar Score tracked five conditions: heart rate, respiratory effort, muscle tone, reflex response, and color and gave them a score from zero to two points. The total of these points gives the baby’ score and Apgar planned on this information, taken one minute after birth, to be used as a guide for the need for resuscitation. There was initial resistance when the score was presented in 1952 but by the next year it was widely used and with an added five-minutes after birth score it became routine in delivery rooms.
Leaving the practice of medicine in 1959 she earned a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins and transitioned into a second career working for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now The March of Dimes. As the vice president and director of basic research there she spent the rest of her life working toward the prevention of birth defects through public education and fundraising for research.
Passing away in 1974 she left a lasting legacy in protecting the lives of mothers and babies.
Written by Angela Goad