Biography of Virginia Apgar

Virginia Apgar, 1959
Virginia Apgar, 1959. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Virginia Agpar (1909-1974) was a physician, educator, and medical researcher who developed the Apgar Newborn Scoring System, which increased infant survival rates. She famously warned that use of some anesthetics during childbirth negatively affected infants and was a pioneer in anesthesiology, helping to raise the respect for the discipline. As an educator at the March of Dimes, she helped refocus the organization from polio to birth defects.

Early Life and Education 

Virginia Apgar was born in Westfield, New Jersey. Coming from a family of amateur musicians, Apgar played violin and other instruments, and became a skilled musician, performing with the Teaneck Symphony.

In 1929, Virginia Apgar graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where she studied zoology and a premed curriculum. During her college years, she supported herself by working as a librarian and waitress. She also played in the orchestra, earned an athletic letter, and wrote for the school paper.

In 1933, Virginia Apgar graduated fourth in her class from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and became the fifth woman to hold a surgical internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, New York. In 1935, at the end of the internship, she realized that there were few opportunities for a female surgeon. In the middle of the Great Depression, few male surgeons were finding positions and bias against female surgeons was high.

Career

Apgar transferred to the relatively new medical field of anesthesiology, and spent 1935-37 as a resident in anesthesiology at Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, and Bellevue Hospital, New York. In 1937, Virginia Apgar became the 50th physician in the US certified in anesthesiology.

In 1938, Apgar was appointed Director of the Department of Anesthesiology, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center — the first woman to head a department at that institution.

From 1949-1959, Virginia Apgar served as professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. In that position she was also the first female full professor at that University and the first full professor of anesthesiology at any institution.

The Agpar Score System

In 1949, Virginia Apgar developed the Apgar Score System (presented in 1952 and published in 1953), a simple five-category observation-based assessment of newborn health in the delivery room, which became widely used in the United States and elsewhere. Before the use of this system, delivery room attention was largely focused on the mother's condition, not the infant's, unless the infant was in obvious distress.

The Apgar Score looks at five categories, using Apgar's name as a mnemonic:

  • Appearance (skin color)
  • Pulse (heart rate)
  • Grimace (reflex irritability)
  • Activity (muscle tone)
  • Respiration (breathing)

While researching the system's effectiveness, Apgar noted that cyclopropane as an anesthetic for the mother had a negative effect on the infant, and as a result, its use in labor was discontinued.

In 1959, Apgar left Columbia for Johns Hopkins, where she earned a doctorate in public health, and decided to change her career. From 1959-67, Apgar served as head of division of congenital malformations National Foundation — the March of Dimes organization —, which she helped refocus from polio to birth defects. From 1969-72, she was the director of basic research for the National Foundation, a job that included lecturing for public education.

From 1965-71, Apgar served on the board of trustees at Mount Holyoke College. She also served during those years as a lecturer at Cornell University, the first such medical professor in the United States to specialize in birth defects.

Personal Life and Legacy

In 1972, Virginia Apgar published Is My Baby All Right?, co-written with Joan Beck, which became a popular parenting book.

In 1973, Apgar lectured at Johns Hopkins University, and from 1973-74, she was the senior vice president for medical affairs, National Foundation.

In 1974, Virginia Apgar died in New York City. She never married, saying "I haven't found a man who can cook."

Apgar's hobbies included music (violin, viola, and cello), making musical instruments, flying (after age 50), fishing, photography, gardening, and golf.

Awards and Accolades 

  • Four honorary degrees (1964-1967)
  • Ralph Walders Medal, American Society of Anesthesiologists
  • Gold Medal of Columbia University
  • Woman of the Year, 1973, Ladies Home Journal
  • American Academy of Pediatrics prize named after her
  • Mount Holyoke College created an academic chair in her name