Virginia Apgar: Inventions, Awards & Accomplishments

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.

In this lesson, follow the ever-evolving career of the energetic Dr. Virginia Apgar.  You'll learn of the amazing achievements one woman was able to accomplish during a lifetime of active commitment to medicine.

The Evolution of An Educated Woman

Dr. Apgar, a pioneering female in medicine during the mid-20th century, began her life like the rest of us: she was born. This particular birthing event, the only in which she was the infant, occurred in June 1909, but by her life's end in 1974, Dr. Apgar would attend over 15,000 births. How'd a young girl from New Jersey evolve into a physician who earned a place in the National Women's Hall of Fame?

Early Years of Dr. Apgar

Virginia Apgar graduated high school in 1925, at which time she knew that she wanted to be a physician. Virginia, undaunted by the fact that very few women were employed in this arena, pursued her undergraduate degree in zoology. In 1929 she graduated from Mt. Holyoke College with her bachelor's degree in hand, and her eyes set firmly on the next step.

The following fall Virginia, along with only 8 other females, enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. Despite a national economic downturn, Virginia successfully completed medical school in 1933, graduating 4th in her class of 90 students. Upon achieving this milestone, the newly named Dr. Apgar was presented with a dilemma. Virginia wanted to be a surgeon, but an advisor recommended the new field of anesthesiology, since he had witnessed firsthand discrimination against other female surgeons.

Dr. Apgar was intrigued by the challenges of anesthesiology, the field of medicine which examines methodologies to allow a patient not to feel pain during surgical procedures.  For over a decade, Dr. Apgar examined the effects of anesthesia on patients. She was particularly intrigued by the anesthesia used in the child-birthing processes, a branch referred to as obstetrical anesthesiology. Her mastery in the subject led to her being awarded a professorship at Columbia University in 1949, a first for a female. Soon after, Dr. Apgar made her lasting contribution to obstetrical medicine.

Dr. Apgar examines a newborn.
Apgar examining newborn

The Apgar Score: A Major Medical Contribution

Dr. Apgar tirelessly observed the effects of obstetrical anesthesiology, not only on the mother but also on the infant. She watched newborns for signs of successful acclimation or distress following birth. Using these observations, Dr. Apgar created the Apgar score in 1952, which was a tool intended to assess a newborn baby's overall health. It helped medical professionals know if interventions for the newborn needed to be made.

The Apgar score is an acronym:

  • A stands for Activity or the muscle tone of baby
  • P stands for Pulse of the heart rate of baby
  • G stands for Grimace or the strength of baby's reflexes
  • A stands for Appearance or the coloring of baby
  • R stands for Respiration or the breathing of baby

Each characteristic is given a score between 0-2, 0 being that the sign is absent and 2 being that the sign is strong. A baby with an Apgar score of 1-3 needs immediate interventions, whereas a baby with an Apgar score of 7-10 is transitioning well outside the womb.

Newborn being assessed with an APGAR score.

The Apgar score is still in use today, and is considered a standard of care that is performed both one and five minutes following delivery. This tool has saved thousands of babies' lives over the past 6 decades.

Later Years of Dr. Apgar

Anyone else may have been content to be viewed as a specialist who engineered an effective assessment tool, but not Virginia. She had boundless energy and an insatiable appetite for new knowledge.

In 1958, she returned to school at Johns Hopkins, earning her master's degree in public health. Dr. Apgar utilized this new degree to propel herself into the public arena. Serving as an executive for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which would later be known as the March of Dimes, she informed professionals and laypeople of the necessary means for preventing prematurity and birth defects. She also galvanized others into funding necessary medical research in this field. Again respected for the authority of her knowledge, Dr. Apgar was appointed professor of medical genetics at the Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Apgar never formally retired, but chose to keep working until her final years. In 1974, Dr. Apgar passed away, but her legacy lives on.

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