Who is Dr. Virginia Apgar?

Who is Dr. Virginia Apgar?

A century ago, the level of worldwide technology is not as much as improved as today. For instance, communication technology is more advanced in the modern world. Today, we have smartphones to reach our loved ones or voice out our opinion about certain issues in society. We even used it for quick responses regarding business. Meanwhile, it was hard for the people born a century ago to even send one letter to their loved ones.

It’s not just technology in communication that became advance. Several aspects of our lives improved thanks to the perseverance and intelligence of some famous and not famous inventors and scientists.

Included in the advanced technology that we are harvesting nowadays is the Apgar score. It may be, perhaps, unknown to you, but people in the medical field are very known for it.

Dr. Virginia Apgar and The APGAR score

After birth, a newborn will undergo some tests to check its muscle tone, heart rate, color, respiration, and reflexes. These areas are needed to be monitored for medical purposes. The method is called the Apgar score.

APGAR stands for:

A – appearance

P – pulse

G – grimace

A – activity; and

R – respiration

Appearance refers to the skin color of the newborn. Pulse, on the other hand, indicates the baby’s heart rate. Meanwhile, grimace responses pertain to the reflexes of the baby, while, activity is about the infant’s muscle tone. Lastly, respiration is the rate of the baby’s breathing and effort.

The scoring system has to be performed a minute after the child’s birth.

But have you ever wondered, who invented this method? It is none other than Dr. Virginia Apgar. Perhaps we can salute her for her great contribution in the field of perinatology – a branch of obstetrics that deals with the time of childbirth.

Who is Dr. Virginia Apgar?

Many historians, acknowledge Dr. Apgar for her input in perinatology. In fact, these historians said that Dr. Apgar forever changed the field.

Early Life

It was June 7, 1909, when Virginia Apgar was born from Mr. and Mrs. Charles Apgar. Because the family was into music, Virginia learned to play the violin at an early age. However, she began to be interested in the field of science and medicine as she reached her high school years. Perhaps, it was the influence of her father, an amateur astronomer, and inventor, which made her like the field. No wonder, she pursued a medical career when she had a chance to begin college.

Apgar was an excellent student. And perhaps too excellent in her chosen field that history recorded she never learned how to cook. Home economics is her Waterloo but she excelled in another field (science) which was considered odd in those years, as women tend to study anything related to homework.

Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University

Supporting herself with multiple part-time jobs, she majored zoology at Mount Holyoke College in 1925 and successfully graduated in 1929. When she started her medical training at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, her financial status did not change. This is mainly because of the economic depression happened between 1929 and 1939. However, her status is one of the nine women in the university that made her proud. The university is composed of 90 students. Nine of these are women, and 1 out of these 9 women is Apgar.


By 1933, Apgar proudly got her MD with flying colors. She was rank as fourth place in class. However, because of the ongoing Great Depression, she was full of debt. The said depression is the same reason for Allen Whipple’s (her mentor) worries that she advised Apgar to take anesthesiology—the study that deals with giving patients anesthesia—instead of becoming a surgeon. During that time, administering anesthesia is the nurse’s responsibility.

Apgar considered her mentor’s advice as well as economic status. Male surgeons from that time have difficulties finding jobs in New York, and being a female place her in a slimmer position of becoming a surgeon; thus, she pursued anesthesiology.

She trained anesthesiology at Presbyterian Hospital for a year; then attended residency programs at the New York’s Bellevue Hospital and the University of Wisconsin, which are led by Emery Rovenstine and Ralph waters. In 1938, she came back to Presbyterian Hospital, but not as an ordinary anesthesiologist, but as a director of the Division of Anesthesia which is part of the Department of Surgery. History recorded, that Apgar was the first woman to head a division inside the Presbyterian Hospital.

Apgar made excellent work as the new director. She recruited and trained medical students about anesthesiology. She even coordinated anesthesia to the other department of the hospital as well as to conduct further research about the field. Her dedication made her legendary as 11 years later, anesthesia service is conducted by doctors and not nurses inside Presbyterian Hospital. Additionally, Apgar built an anesthesiology education program in the same hospital, making her loved by her students.

Apgar Score Development

Becoming chair was hopeful as the Division of Anesthesiology became a department in the year 1949, however, the position was title under a male colleague named Emanuel Papper. Nevertheless, Virginia Apgar had been granted the position of full professor in the department. It was the highest position achieved by a woman in Columbia during that time.

Perhaps, it was a blessing in disguise that she had been given a seemingly lesser position. Apgar is free from any administrative duties, making her full time both in anesthesiology teaching and researching. She was particularly attracted to the anesthesia given during childbirth. She even realized the importance of the period when an infant is born and come up with a new, organized, and efficient five-part test known today as the Apgar score.

The doctors during her time were more concerned about the mother’s health than the babies, making the rate of child death to increase. However, the test made by Apgar notified physicians to which infant they had to focus first. Originally, the scoring system should be conducted a minute the infant was born, but it is later expanded up to ten minutes. By 1949, Apgar score was developed and become the standard scoring system worldwide for newborn’s survival and development.

Mom Pamper

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