Meet the woman who changed the way we care for newborn babies
Virginia Apgar was born in 1909 in Westfield, New Jersey, the youngest of three children in a family where "they never sat down." She was a talented and ambitious child; she learned to play the violin and was intent on becoming a doctor from a young age.
Apgar excelled academically, and graduated with a degree in zoology in 1929 from Mount Holyoke College. As well as her studies, she played on seven sports teams, acted in plays, wrote for the newspaper and played violin in the orchestra.
After her first degree, Apgar went on to study medicine. She completed medical school in 1938 and chose to pursue anesthesiology, which was a new medical speciality at the time. She became the director of the new Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons where she was a well-loved clinical instructor.
Due to the nature of their practice, it's compulsory for Anesthesiologists to learn resuscitation. Apgar famously said: “Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me.” She even carried a pocket knife and rubber tubing in case someone needed an emergency airway, which resulted in her saving 16 lives.
Apgar became the first woman full professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1949. She researched the effects of maternal anesthesia on newborns and how to lower neonatal mortality rates.
She said: “Birth is the most hazardous time of life. It is urgently important to evaluate quickly the status of a just-born baby and to identify immediately those who need emergency care.”
The Apgar Score was first formulated while she was having breakfast in 1949. She wrote it on a napkin, and later, in 1952, presented her idea as a way to assess how well a baby has endured delivery. It was published in 1953, and today is still administered worldwide.
Thanks to her idea, every baby born in a hospital is first seen through the eyes of Virginia Apgar. The score is administered within the first few minutes of a baby being born; at 1 minute after birth and 5 minutes after birth, the baby is quickly assessed and scored against five simple criteria. These are then added up to give an Apgar Score from 0 to 10.
The criteria form a backronym of Apgar: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration. A score above 7 is generally normal, from 4 to 6 is considered fairly low and a score below 3 may indicate that the newborn needs medical attention.
After becoming increasingly interested in the detection and prevention of birth defects, Apgar joined the National Foundation–March of Dimes in 1959, where she remained employed until her death in 1974.
In 1965, Apgar began teaching teratology, the study of birth defects, at Cornell University School of Medicine. She was the first person to hold a faculty position in this new area of pediatrics.
In 1972, Apgar co-authored a book called Is My Baby All Right? with Joan Beck. It explains the causes and treatments of a range of birth defects and discusses precautions that mothers-to-be can take to increase the chances of a healthy baby.
Apgar was a woman of many firsts and received numerous awards and honors. She was a skilled teacher, and a “people doctor”: empathetic and able to connect almost immediately with everyone.
She led a rich and varied life full of hobbies: she made stringed instruments, flew planes, gardened, golfed, fly fished, collected stamps, and played the violin. Apgar never married, claiming: “It’s just that I haven’t found a man who can cook.”
Apgar is credited as the founder of the science of perinatology, the branch of medicine that treats the newborn as a patient. In 1994, a 20 cent Virginia Apgar postage stamp was issued as part of the Great American Series to commemorate her work.
Virginia Apgar was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995. It's said that she did more to improve the health of mothers, babies and unborn infants than anyone during the 20th century.
Curated by Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., co-author of Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America.
U.S. National Library of Medicine
Library of Congress
Mount Holyoke College. Archives and Special Collections.