Women Who Changed the World Through Science & Engineering: Virginia Apgar

Virginia Apgar – Physician

The New York anesthesiologist-researcher who helped establish the field of modern neonatology, and created the newborn APGAR Scoring System in 1953 – a simple but important test administered at birth to determine the physical health of infants.  This test is responsible for helping to dramatically reduce infant mortality over the last 50 years.

If you were born in the last 50 years or so, chances are –within minutes after birth -- you underwent an important health evaluation devised by Virginia Apgar.  The work of this feisty, no-nonsense pediatric anesthesiologist and researcher also played a key role in establishing the modern-day field of neonatology.

The youngest of three children, Virginia was born in 1909 in Westfield, NJ where she was also raised.  After completing her undergraduate studies she entered medical school, supporting herself by waiting tables and performing other odd jobs.  Following medical school, while completing her residency training, she demonstrated a talent for surgery -- however because women were not encouraged then to pursue this field, her mentors strongly suggested she choose another area of medicine, advising her: “Even women won’t go to a woman surgeon.”  So, Virginia decided upon anesthesiology, later specializing in obstetric/pediatric anesthesiology.

Why She’s Important:  Dr. Apgar, a professor of anesthesia at the New York Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, is best known for devising the APGAR Scoring System (also known as the APGAR Scale) – an important, easy-to-perform test administered within one minute to five minutes following birth to determine the physical status of infants.  This test, which is standard procedure at most hospitals worldwide today, is responsible for helping to dramatically reduce infant mortality over the last 50 years.

Although named in honor of Virginia’s last name, most parents today know the test for what it measures: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration.  The APGAR Scale scores the baby's heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, reflex response, and color. If necessary, the results of the test quickly alert medical personnel that the newborn needs immediate assistance.

Other Achievements:  Virginia, who never profited monetarily from the APGAR test, became the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and later served as a senior medical official at the March of Dimes. There, she devoted the rest of her life to preventing birth defects and other conditions that caused newborns to have low Apgar scores. She was among the first to recognize and warn pregnant women about the dangers that infections, viruses, RH incompatibility and certain medications could pose to unborn babies.

Education:  She received her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1929 and her medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1933. In 1959, she earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

In Her Own Words:  Reflecting the urgency she frequently felt about life and her work, she often said:  “Do what’s right, and do it now.”  She died in 1974 in New York City.

For more exciting role models in science and engineering, visit the USA Science & Engineering Festival www.usasciencefestival.org


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