Virginia Apgar: Saving Newborns


Virginia Apgar is a scientist who is believed to have changed the face of medicine significantly by her contributions in the field of anesthesiology and neonatology. The American physician is best known for developing the Apgar Newborn Scoring System, also known as the Apgar Score; a simple, quick method for judging newborn viability. The newborn’s appearance color, reflex irritability, muscle tone, and respiration are assessed one minute after birth and again after five minutes; low scores indicate possible health issues. Her test has saved countless infants, laid the foundations of neonatology, and discovered potentially grave conditions. She was one of Columbia University’s first female MDs and one of the first American women to specialize in anesthesia.

From an early age, Virginia knew that she wanted to be a part of the medical field, in part due to the death of her eldest brother at the age of three. Apgar joined Mount Holyoke College in 1925 on a scholarship to study zoology; following her graduation, she joined the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1929. In 1933, Apgar graduated fourth in her class, and won a surgical internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. She served three years under Allen Whipple, who persuaded her to pursue a career in the field of anesthesiology.

Anesthesiology was not generally recognized as a specialty until the mid-1940s, Apgar struggled to find a training program when she completed her surgical residency in 1937. She spent six months training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; she then spent six months at Bellevue Hospital in New York. In 1938, Dr. Apgar returned to Columbia University as the director of the division of anesthesia; she was the second woman in history to receive certification and the first to head a department at the Columbian Presbyterian Hospital (CPH).

In 1948, CPH established the Department of Anesthesia, and Apgar left her administrative duties to work more closely with patients. Shortly after, she was appointed as Professor of Anesthesiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. It was at this time that she began to work in obstetric anesthesiology at the Sloane Hospital for Women. Apgar spent the next few years perfecting her famous scoring system, the Apgar Score, that would later help save the lives of countless newborns.

Virginia Apgar’s career spanned the fields of medicine and public health; she became a pivotal inspiring figure for thousands of women around the world. In 1973, Apgar became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Medicine from the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Apgar passed away in 1974; even after her death, she continued to earn posthumous recognitions for her contributions and achievements. In 1994, she was honored by the United States Postal Service with a “Great Americans” series postage stamp. In November 1995, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.


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