Women’s History Month: Virginia Apgar

It’s Women’s History Month so we’re adding to last year’s series on women who have made an impact on medicine. Up next is Virginia Apgar.

Virginia Apgar was born in 1909 in New Jersey. After high school, she attended and graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where she studied zoology, minoring in physiology and chemistry. After graduating she attended Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she graduated fourth in her class. After med school, she did her residency in surgery.

After the residency, she was discouraged from becoming a surgeon by the chairman of surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He had seen many women fail at becoming surgeons and instead encouraged Dr. Apgar to study and practice anesthesiology. She studied under Ralph Waters, who created the first anesthesiology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After completing her studies there and at Bellevue Hospital in New York, she returned to Columbia University to lead its brand new anesthesia department in 1938.

In 1949, she became a full professor at Columbia. She became interested in infant mortality and in 1953, she developed the Apgar score. The infant mortality rate declined between the 1930s and 1950s, yet the rate within the first 24 hours remained steady. Dr. Apgar was able to monitor trends and assigned a score between 0-2 for each of these categories: heart rate, respiration, color, muscle one and reflex irritability. The test was given one minute after birth and then again five minutes later. If scores did not improve, the tests could be continued each five minutes to help determine what treatment would help the infant. This Apgar test is still used today and helps determine treatment to give infants the best medical care.

Dr. Apgar left Columbia in 1959 and worked for the March of Dimes Foundation. She worked to bring awareness and attention to premature births, preventing and treating birth defects. While there, she researched, lectured and published articles, advocating for vaccines to prevent congenital rubella, which caused infant death, deafness, blindness and intellectual disabilities. She worked for the March of Dimes until her death in 1974.