During each week of Women’s History Month, we will honor a female entrepreneur who has made an important contribution to American society. This week’s feature is Virginia Apgar – anesthesiologist and inventor of the Apgar score.
Almost four million babies are born in the United States each day, and thanks to modern medicine, most of these births occur without complication. Yet, it was not long ago when pregnancy and childbirth posed a real threat to women and their newly born children. That is, until Virginia Apgar decided to dedicate her career to assessing and improving the health of newborn babies with the implementation of her very own Apgar score.
Born in 1909, Apgar graduated from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (CUCPS) in 1933. After being discouraged from practicing surgery by her superior, Apgar began to train extensively in anesthesia, becoming director of the CUCPS anesthesia division in 1938 and a full-fledged professor in 1949. Apgar was dedicated to making advances in the field of neonatology, spending much of her time working to improve newborn and infant health and advocating for universal vaccination. She first introduced the Apgar score in 1952. Still used today, the Apgar score uses five criteria—appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration—to determine any problems the newborn child may have. She also worked with the March of Dimes Foundation to bring attention to the risks that lead to premature birth.
During her career, Apgar published over sixty academic articles and was awarded honorary doctorates from institutions such as Mount Holyoke College. Though a pioneer for women in her field, Apgar purposefully did not engage with organized women’s movements. Instead, she believed that “women are liberated from the time they leave the womb,” and focused her energy on women’s healthcare issues.