Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. Would you like to guest blog one of the world’s outstanding women? Let me hear from you. To read previous posts in this segment, there is a menu at the top of my site.
A truly outstanding woman from the world of science and medicine, meet Dr. Virginia Apgar.
It always seems to me that whenever you read about a high achiever, they seem to have a wide variety of activities in their life. Maybe its because they are always challenging their minds to learn. You’ll be impressed with all she did in life and how important she is to the well being of infants today. It has been said that every baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.
Virginia Apgar was an American obstetrical anesthesiologist. She was a leader in the fields of anesthesiology and teratology (study of abnormalities of physiological development) and introduced obstetrical considerations to the established field of neonatology. You may not have heard of her but you may think her name sounds familiar. That is because she is best known as the developer of the Apgar score, a way to quickly assess the health of newborn children immediately after birth.
Virginia Apgar was born on June 7, 1909, the youngest of three children.
She was raised in Westfield, New Jersey where she graduated from Westfield High School in 1925.
She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1929, where she studied zoology with minors in physiology and chemistry, and from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (CUCPS) in 1933. She completed a residency in surgery at CUCPS in 1937.
Career Beginnings and Greatest Achievement
In her career, she was discouraged from practicing surgery by Allen Whipple, the chairman of surgery at CUCPS. She further trained in anesthesia, receiving certification as an anesthesiologist in 1937, 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, where she remained until 1959. During this time, she also did clinical and research work at the affiliated Sloane Hospital for Women.
Her greatest achievement came in 1953 when she introduced the first test, called the Apgar score, to assess the health of newborn babies. The Apgar score is calculated based on an infant’s condition at one minute and five minutes after birth. If the five-minute Apgar score is low, additional scores may be assigned every five minutes.
March of Dimes
In 1959, Virginia Apgar left CUCPS and earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Starting in 1959 until her death in 1974, Dr. 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. Since gestational age is directly related to an infant’s Apgar score, Dr. 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. During this time, she wrote and lectured extensively, authoring articles in popular magazines as well as research work. In 1967, Apgar became vice president and director of basic research at The National Foundation (NF) -March of Dimes.
During the rubella pandemic of 1964-65, Dr. Apgar became an outspoken advocate for universal vaccination to prevent mother-to-child transmission of rubella. Just what was happening during this pandemic:
- 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.
- Dr. 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.
Apgar brought her legendary energy and “people skills” to the new job for The National Foundation (NF)-March of Dimes. She traveled thousands of miles each year to speak to widely varied audiences about the importance of early detection of birth defects and the need for more research in this area. She proved an excellent ambassador for the NF, and the annual income of that organization more than doubled during her tenure there. She also served the National Foundation as Director of Basic Medical Research (1967-1968) and Vice-President for Medical Affairs (1971-1974).
Her concerns for the welfare of children and families were combined with her talent for teaching in the 1972 book, “Is My Baby All Right?”, written with Joan Beck. Dr. Apgar was also a lecturer (1965-1971) and then clinical professor (1971-1974) of pediatrics at Cornell University School of Medicine, where she taught teratology (the study of birth defects). She was the first to hold a faculty position in this new area of pediatrics. In 1973, she was appointed lecturer in medical genetics at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Dr. Apgar published over sixty scientific articles and numerous shorter essays for newspapers and magazines during her career, along with her book, Is My Baby All Right? She received many awards, including honorary doctorates from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1964) and Mount Holyoke College (1965), the Elizabeth Blackwell Award from the American Medical Women’s Association (1966), the Distinguished Service Award from the American Society of Anesthesiologists (1966), the Alumni Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (1973), and the Ralph M. Waters Award from the American Society of Anesthesiologists (1973). In 1973 she was also elected Woman of the Year in Science by the Ladies Home Journal.
Throughout her career, Virginia Apgar maintained, with her characteristic optimism, that “women are liberated from the time they leave the womb,” and that being female had not imposed significant limitations on her medical career. She avoided women’s organizations and causes, for the most part. Though she sometimes privately expressed her frustration with gender inequalities (especially in the matter of salaries), she worked around these by consistently pushing into new fields where there was room to exercise her considerable energy and abilities.
Virginia wasn’t all work and no play though. Even that her work kept her busy, Apgar found time to pursue her many outside interests. She traveled with her violin, often playing in amateur chamber quartets wherever she happened to be. During the 1950s a friend introduced her to instrument-making, and together they made two violins, a viola, and a cello.
She was an enthusiastic gardener, and enjoyed fly-fishing, golfing, and stamp collecting. In her fifties, Apgar started taking flying lessons, stating that her goal was to someday fly under New York’s George Washington Bridge.
Virginia Apgar never married, and died on August 7, 1974 at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. She is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.
Honors 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)
Dr. Apgar was also a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, the American Public Health Association, and the New York Academy of Sciences.
Dr. 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.
“Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!”
–Dr. Virginia Apgar, ca. 1950s, explaining why she kept basic resuscitation equipment with her at all times.
There are many sources on the internet about this outstanding woman. The bases for my post was primarily from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Apgar The photographs were from Google images.