About Virginia Apgar
Virginia Apgar (7 June 1909–7 August 1974) was an American pediatric anesthesiologist. She was a leader in the fields of anesthesiology and teratology, and effectively founded the field of neonatology. To the public, however, she is best known as the developer of the Apgar score, a method of assessing the health of newborn babies that has drastically reduced infant mortality over the world.
The youngest of three children, Apgar was born and raised in Westfield, New Jersey, graduating from Westfield High School in 1925. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1929 and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (CUCPS) in 1933. She completed a residency in surgery at CUCPS in 1937. However, she was discouraged from practicing surgery by Allen Whipple, the chair of surgery at CUCPS. She further trained in anesthesia and returned to CUCPS in 1938 as director of the newly formed division of anesthesia.
In 1949, Apgar became the first woman to become a full professor at CUCPS while she also did clinical and research work at the affiliated Sloane Hospital for Women. In 1959, she earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. In 1953, she introduced the first test, called the Apgar score, to assess the health of newborn babies. The Apgar test is typically administered one minute and five minutes after birth.
During the rubella pandemic of 1964-65, Apgar became an outspoken advocate for universal vaccination to prevent mother-to-child transmission of rubella. Rubella can cause serious congenital disorders if a woman becomes infected while pregnant. Between 1964-65, the United States had an estimated 12.5 million rubella cases, which led to 11,000 miscarriages or therapeutic abortions and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Of these, 2,100 died in infancy, 12,000 were deaf, 3,580 suffered blindness due to cataracts and/or microphthalmia, and 1,800 were mentally retarded. In New York City alone, CRS affected 1% of all births at that time. Apgar also promoted effective use of Rh testing, which can identify women who are at risk for transmission of maternal antibodies across the placenta where they may subsequently bind with and destroy fetal red blood cells, resulting in fetal hydrops or even miscarriage.
From 1959 until her death in 1974, Apgar worked for the March of Dimes Foundation, serving as vice president for Medical Affairs and directing its research program to prevent and treat birth defects. Because gestational age is directly related to an infant’s Apgar score, Apgar was one of the first at the March of Dimes to bring attention to the problem of premature birth, now one of the March of Dimes top priorities.
While Apgar was frequently the first or only woman in a department to serve in a position or win an accolade, she avoided the organized women's movement, proclaiming that "women are liberated from the time they leave the womb". Apgar was equally at home speaking to teens as she was to the movers and shakers of society. She spoke at March of Dimes Youth Conferences about teen pregnancy and congenital disorders at a time when these topics were considered taboo. Apgar never married, and died on August 7, 1974 at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. She is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.
Recognition and awards
Honorary doctorate, Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (1964)
Honorary doctorate, Mount Holyoke College (1965)
Distinguished Service Award from the American Society of Anesthesiologists (1966)
Elizabeth Blackwell Award, from the American Women's Medical Association (1966)
Honorary doctorate, New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry (1967)
Alumni Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (1973)
Ralph M. Waters Award, American Society of Anesthesiologists (1973)
Woman of the Year in Science, Ladies Home Journal (1973)
Apgar has continued to earn posthumous recognition for her contributions and achievements. In 1994, she was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 20¢ Great Americans series postage stamp. In November 1995 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. In 1999 she was designated a Women's History Month Honoree by the National Women's History Project.
Virginia Apgar, brilliant physician and humanitarian, is best known for her development of the Apgar Score (1952), a system to determine whether a newborn infant needs special attention to stay alive. In most births at the time, attention was focused on mothers, not the newborns, which resulted in many infant deaths. This simple test, performed in the very first minutes of a baby's life, measures an infant's pulse, skin color, activity and respiration very quickly, enabling medical staff to intervene if help is needed. This simple but brilliantly conceived examination has saved countless newborn lives.
Apgar, one of the few women admitted to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in the 1930s, trained first in surgery, but shifted her work to anesthesiology, a new field that offered the opportunity to do groundbreaking work. She was soon named director of anesthesiology at Columbia, the first woman to head a department at the University. In 1949, after she built a major academic department in the discipline, she was named the first full professor of anesthesiology -- the first woman to hold a full professorship in any discipline at Columbia University.
Apgar's career shifted again in 1959 when she became a senior executive with the National Foundation-March of Dimes, and spent her time working to generate public support and funds for research on birth defects. She was a spectacular fundraiser and educator of the public, and greatly increased both visibility and attention paid to the problems of birth defects.
In 1973, she became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Medicine from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. In 1994, Apgar was pictured on a U.S. postage stamp, as part of the Great Americans series.
Virginia Apgar's Timeline
Westfield, New Jersey, United States
August 7, 1974
New York, New York, New York, United States
Westfield, New Jersey, United States