The Apgar Score is a test used to evaluate newborns at birth. The test checks a baby’s heart rate, muscle tone, and other signs to see if extra medical care or emergency care is needed. Developed by Dr. Virginia Apgar in 1953, the test has long been adopted as a standard of care in hospitals worldwide. Who is this obstetrics person of influence, Dr. Virginia Apgar? Let’s find out!
Dr. Virginia Apgar
Dr. Virginia Apgar (1909 – 1974) was the youngest of 3 children. She developed an interest in science and medicine at an early age. Her father (an amateur inventor and astronomer) may have been the source of inspiration and fascination with science and medicine. By Dr. Apgar’s high school years, she had already decided to pursue a medical career.
Apgar’s Education & Career
Dr. Apgar earned her Bachelor of Arts from Mount Holyoke in 1929. Following graduation, she began her medical training at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Virginia Apgar broke through barriers of her time and was one of only nine women in a class of ninety.
After completing her MD in 1933, Apgar began a two-year surgical internship at Presbyterian Hospital (currently New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center). After her first year, Apgar’s mentor, Allen Whipple, suggested that she pursue anesthesiology instead, despite her promising surgery performance. He worried that prospects for female surgeons would be abysmal during the Depression. At the time, anesthesiology was taking shape as a medical, rather than nursing, specialty.
Apgar accepted Allen Whipple’s advice. Following her second year of internship, she trained for a year at Presbyterian’s nurse-anesthetist program. She then attended residency programs headed by Ralph Waters at the University of Wisconsin and Emery Rovenstine at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Apgar returned to Presbyterian Hospital in 1938 as the director of a new Division of Anesthesia within the Department of Surgery. She was the first woman to head a division at Presbyterian.
Although her work kept her busy, she found time to pursue her many personal interests. She traveled with her violin, often playing in amateur chamber quartets wherever she happened to be. During the 1950s, a friend introduced her to instrument-making. Together they made two violins, a viola, and a cello. She was also an enthusiastic gardener and enjoyed fly-fishing, golfing, and stamp collecting. In her fifties, Apgar started taking flying lessons. Her goal was to someday fly under New York’s George Washington Bridge.
Apgar had quite a list of achievements in her lifetime. She published over sixty scientific articles and numerous shorter essays for newspapers and magazines during her career. Apgar even wrote a book titled, Is My Baby All Right? She received many awards, including honorary doctorates.
Apgar never retired and remained active until shortly before her death. She died on August 7, 1974, at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where she had trained and then worked for much of her life. Her friends, colleagues, and former students remembered her as much for her warmth, vivacity, and wicked sense of humor as for her sharp intelligence and professional competence. She received many honors, including being featured on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in 1994. Then, in 1995, the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her.
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