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Virginia Apgar: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Rachel Torrens

Rachel obtained a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Grove City College. She then earned her Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Nursing from Thomas Jefferson University. For over 8 years, Rachel has practiced as a Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner, and taught science to elementary aged students.

Virginia Apgar was a fascinating individual who affected great change in the world of medicine. In this lesson, learn about her upbringing, academic achievements, outside interests and some of her most famous quotations.

An Energetic Upbringing

In June 1909, Virginia Apgar was born into a highly energetic and musical family. Charles and Helen Apgar, who already had two children, resided in New Jersey at the time of her birth. No one in the Apgar family was ever content just sitting still. For example, even though her father was a gainfully employed businessman, he spent his free time dabbling in inventing and astronomy. And 'Ginny', as she was known by friends and family, followed in her father's lively footsteps. She did everything in her power to excel, a trait that would push her to greatness by the end of her career.

Ginny was a young woman of purpose. She was highly self-motivated and strongly focused, but simultaneously amiable. She had a passion for her studies and for music. As a child she started with the violin and continued perfecting her musical abilities throughout her entire life. She knew from her teenage years that she wanted to be a doctor, even though this was a career few women held at the time.

Virginia Apgar was an avid violinist from a young age.
Apgar playing violin

Academic Endeavors

Ginny excelled in her scientific coursework, successfully graduating from Westfield High School in 1925. The following fall she entered Mount Holyoke College and graduated four years later with a bachelor's degree in zoology. It should be noted that as Ginny was pursuing her college education, the United States began to slid into economic recession. Ginny remained undaunted by her circumstances and secured several part-time jobs to fund her tuition.

Since Ginny had a full course load and worked, one might think her plate was full, but not Ginny! In addition to studying and supporting herself, she was also an athlete who played on multiple teams, an amateur journalist for the college paper and a violinist in the college orchestra. While peers were impressed by her vivaciousness, professors were equally impressed by her cleverness.

After obtaining her bachelor's degree, Ginny went on to pursue her long-dreamed of medical degree. In 1929, she enrolled in Columbia University's medical program. Again, Virginia succeeded, graduating fourth in her class of ninety medical students. While earning her medical degree, Virginia accumulated quite a bit a debt. This fact, coupled with the truth that she was a female physician, pushed Virginia into developing the newer realm of medicine known as anesthesiology.

Virginia pioneered advancements in this field, specifically exploring obstetrical anesthesiology, or the effects of medications given to mothers to mitigate the pain of childbirth. Whereas others had always focused on the mother following anesthesia, Dr. Apgar was particularly interested in the effects of these anesthetic medications on the newborn following birth. Ultimately, she developed the Apgar score, a tool used to assess the likelihood of a newborn thriving outside the womb after birth. By the 1950s, Virginia had attended over 15,000 births and, having become an expert in this arena, was offered a professorship at Columbia.

Dr. Apgar worked tirelessly to increase the survival of newborn babes.
Apgar examining an infant

Again, never content to sit still, Virginia took leave of her professional duties, choosing to become a student once more. In 1958, she enrolled in a program at Johns Hopkins School. She obtained her master's degree in public health and gained skills needed to help her affect change in the wider public arena. She began to research birth defects and prematurity. She traveled far and wide speaking on her findings and raising awareness about prematurity and the prevention of birth defects. Never daunted, Virginia spoke to professionals and laypeople alike, using her endless energy to inform any one who would listen.

Dr. Apgar never officially retired but chose to continue working until shortly before her death. Due to complications of cirrhosis of the liver, Virginia Apgar passed away in August 1974.

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