Who is Dr. Virginia Apgar?

Dr. Virginia Apgar is a celebrated American Anesthesiology, known for her groundbreaking work in maternal anesthetics and developed the “Apgar Scoring” system, which reduced the mortality rate among newborn infants.

Dr. Virginia Apgar

Just who is Dr. Virginia Apgar?

Dr. Virginia Apgar is an American anesthesiologist, physician, and medical researcher. She was also known as a leading anesthesiology and a leader in an emerging field of teratology in the 1960s. Teratology is the study of birth defects.

There used to be a saying that every newborn baby must first be checked by Dr. Apgar. In modern medicine, the “Apgar Score” is still in practice. When she developed the score in 1952, it was quickly adopted by other obstetrics, simple yet effective, the method reduced mortality rate in infants and paved the way for neonatology.

They used the score by monitoring the baby’s heart rate, muscle tone, and signs for any abnormality if the infant needed extra medical attention.The test is usually given twice: One minute after birth then five minutes after birth. They may conduct the test again if there are concerns surrounding the conditions of the infant.

Apgar actually stands for:

  • Appearance – skin color of the infant
  • Pulse – pulse rate
  • Grimace – reflex irritability grimace
  • Activity – muscle tone
  • Respiratory – respiratory effort

Early Life

Dr. Virginia Apgar was born on June 7, 1909, in Westfield, New Jersey and the youngest of the three children of Charles Emory Apgar and Helen May Clarke. Her older brother died of tuberculosis and the other brother had a chronic illness. Her family and relatives shared a particular love for music and Virginia Apgar herself played violin in family concerts during her early years. During her high school years, she played in their orchestra and also participated in athletics.

Her father was an insurance executive, Astronomer, and an amateur inventor. In fact, their home has a basement laboratory, where he built a telescope and conduct experiments involving radio frequencies and electricity. Perhaps the scientific environment she grew up with kindled her interest in science and made her pursue science through medicine.

Mount Holyoke College

According to her friends, she was an excellent student in science but did poorly in home economics and never even learned to cook. After graduating high school in 1925 she went to Mount Holyoke College the same year and took a bachelor’s degree and majored in zoology.

In college, endless energy was her hallmark; she’s on seven different sports team, acted in drama productions, contributor for the college newspaper and played for the school orchestra. In spite of her loaded extra-curricular activities, she was able to manage an exceptional academic work. She had to support herself and take a number of jobs to get through college and graduated in 1929.

Continuing studies at Columbia University and Presbyterian Hospital

She continued her education and the following September after her graduation, she enrolled at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, New York City. It was a class dominated by men; she was one of only nine women in that class of ninety. She’s still struggling financially and to add to her financial woes, it was the Great Depression; a period of economic crisis in the US.

Determined to remain in school, she borrowed money to support her studies. In 1933, she graduated from medical school and ranked fourth-place in her class, but with a large amount of debt. She also started a two-year internship at the Presbyterian Hospital (now known as The New York- Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Hospital).

Despite what might be a promising surgical career for Apgar, her mentor Allen Whipple suggests that she should pursue anesthesiology instead because of the economic effects of the Great Depression, it might not be a good prospect for woman surgeons. During these periods, anesthesiology was still in its infancy; a beginning field in medicine. She consented to his advice and after her second year of internship, she’s trained for one more year at the Presbyterian Hospitals’ nurse-anesthetist program.

Work with Anesthesiology

To continue her training, she went to the University of Wisconsin then to Bellevue Hospital. She went back to Presbyterian Hospital in 1938, where she’s given the position of director of the Division of Anesthesia (a newly formed division) under the Department of Surgery. She was the first woman to hold any directors position at Presbyterian Hospital.

Her responsibility was to recruit, train resident anesthesiology, teach medical students, and coordinate anesthetic service and research at the hospital. In eleven years the division has blossomed. Physicians started to work in her area from a division composed mainly of nurses and established an Anesthesiology education program.

In 1949, the division became an independent department. However, Dr. Virginia Apgar was not named chair, it was rather given to Emmanuel Pappar. Instead, given a full time teaching position at the Anesthesiology program of the College of Physicians and Surgeon—the first woman to hold that rank.

During her tenure as a professor, Dr. Virginia Apgar was free of administrative duties. Thus, she devoted most of her time in the study of obstetrical anesthesia. She was particularly interested in the effects of maternal anesthesia and how to lower the mortality rates among newborn infants. The neonatal mortality rate has decreased since the 1900s but nevertheless, the number is still high.

The Apgar Score Development

By 1952, Dr. Virginia Apgar developed a method to check the general condition of the newly-born infant. A scoring system that monitors and based their assessment on pulse rates, activity, skin color, respiration and irritability, one minute after infants were born. She collaborated with Duncan Holiday, L. Stanley James and others. She relates to them her “Apgar Score” and its positive effects to labor, delivery and traditional maternal practices. They worked on the newborn infants’ blood chemistry and proved the positive effects of the Apgar score evaluation immediately after birth.

By the late 1950s’, Dr. Apgar had now attended approximately 17,000 births. Demonstrating and at the same time refining the scoring system. During these periods she has seen birth defects and has become increasingly interested in how they might be prevented. At that time, the National Foundation-March of Dimes (NF) was extending its effort to help children with polio and other illnesses. They asked Dr. Virginia Apgar and she accepted, to head its newly established sector—the Division of Congenital Malformations. However, she resumed her position after she received her MPH in June of 1959.

Other Works

During her lifetime, she published about sixty articles and countless essays and columns for newspapers and magazines which revolve around her field. One of her most notable books was “Is My Baby All Right?”

Dr. Virginia Apgar never retired and continues to be active until a liver disease slowed her down. On August 07, 1974 she died in Presbyterian Medical Center; the institution where she lived much of her life.

Her relatives, friends, former students, colleague remembered her as warm, enthusiastic and remarkable sense of humor. In 1994 she was honored with a commemorative stamp and in 1995, inducted to the Women’s Hall of Fame.

On June 7, 2018, Google Doodle honored Dr. Virginia Apgar for her groundbreaking work on obstetric anesthetics and celebrates her 109th birthday.

Dr. Virginia Apgar

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