Forgotten Women:Virginia Apgar

Many of us may owe our health to Virginia Apgar, so how come we’ve never heard of her? Check out the latest instalment in our Forgotten Women series, written by Charlotte Bailey.

Described as the living ‘Mother Nature’, Virginia Apgar’s method to ensure the health of newborns has safely seen every modern infant into the world. Devised in the early 1950s, the Apgar Score has continued not only to reduce infant mortality, but inspire women in the scientific field.

Upon completing her medical degree in 1933, Apgar quickly began to the lay the foundations for anaesthesiology; an achievement not only for science but also women. Being one of only nine females in a class of ninety, Apgar saw the beginning of her journey towards helping infant children.

Continuing to lead her field, Apgar became director a division of Anaesthesia within the Department of Surgery at Presbyterian Hospital by 1938. Apgar was  the first woman to lead a section at the hospital; she was responsible for teaching medical students entering her unit, whilst also recruiting permanent staff.

By 1949, Apgar had managed to successfully convert the Division of Anaesthesiology into a department. Appointed as a professor of anaesthesiology by Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Apgar narrowly missed out on being named chair of the department, with the title being given to a male colleague.

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Determined to not let this destroy her efforts, Apgar used her previous knowledge from working at the hospital to form what would later be called the Apgar Score. Beginning in 1952, she developed a scoring system rated on a scale out of 10 to evaluate the health of newborns, assessing them on their movement, pulse, reflexes, appearance and breathing. This simple system  began to be used in the 1950s, instantly saving thousands of babies’ lives.

By the late 1950s, Apgar had been present at over 17,000 births, all using her simple yet life-saving method. Whilst developing the scoring system, Apgar began to notice a correlation between the score of the infant and their birth defects, contributing to our present understanding of these complex issues.

Unable to allow future children to suffer these recurring defects, Apgar took it upon herself to enrol in the Master of Public Health program in 1958. This later culminated in her nomination as the head of the National Foundation- March of Dimes’ head in the Division of Congenital Malformations.

Throughout her career Apgar continued to bring a personal quality to her duties, travelling thousands of miles annually to discuss the importance of early detection of birth defects. Whilst on the road, Apgar also wrote over sixty scientific articles for various newspapers and magazines, aiming to convey the same message to the elite.

Suffering from a progressive liver disease in her final years of life, Apgar died in 1974, an unretired, remarkable woman. Finally recognising her significant contribution to the field of science, Apgar was eventually honoured with a U.S postage stamp in 1994 as well as being included in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995.
Apgar’s legacy continues to live on daily, with her rating system being used globally to greet newborns into a healthier and safer world. Whilst Apgar certainly experienced gendered inequality throughout her career, this only perpetuated her love for anaesthesiology, and she continues to be a source of inspiration not only for women interested in science, but anybody with a compelling desire for change.

Illustration by Izzy Finlay. 

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