Virginia Apgar Biography

Virginia Apgar (7 June 1909–7 August 1974) was an American obstetrical anesthesiologist. She was a leader in the fields of anesthesiology and teratology, and introduced obstetrical considerations to the established field of neonatology. To the public, however, she is best known as the developer of the Apgar score, a method of assessing the health of newborn babies that has drastically reduced infant mortality over the world.

The youngest of three children, Apgar was born and raised in Westfield, New Jersey, graduating from Westfield High School in 1925. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1929 and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (CUCPS) in 1933. She completed a residency in surgery at CUCPS in 1937. However, she was discouraged from practicing surgery by Allen Whipple, the chair of surgery at CUCPS. She further trained in anesthesia and returned to CUCPS in 1938 as director of the newly formed division of anesthesia.

In 1949, Apgar became the first woman to become a full professor at CUCPS while she also did clinical and research work at the affiliated Sloane Hospital for Women. In 1959, she earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. In 1953, she introduced the first test, called the Apgar score, to assess the health of newborn babies. The Apgar test is typically administered one minute to five minutes after birth.

During the rubella pandemic of 1964-65, Apgar became an outspoken advocate for universal vaccination to prevent mother-to-child transmission of rubella. Rubella can cause serious congenital disorders if a woman becomes infected while pregnant. Between 1964-65, the United States had an estimated 12.5 million rubella cases, which led to 11,000 miscarriages or therapeutic abortions and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Of these, 2,100 died in infancy, 12,000 were deaf, 3,580 suffered blindness due to cataracts and/or microphthalmia, and 1,800 were mentally retarded. In New York City alone, CRS affected 1% of all births at that time. Apgar also promoted effective use of Rh testing, which can identify women who are at risk for transmission of maternal antibodies across the placenta where they may subsequently bind with and destroy fetal red blood cells, resulting in fetal hydrops or even miscarriage.

From 1959 until her death in 1974, Apgar worked for the March of Dimes Foundation, serving as vice president for Medical Affairs and directing its research program to prevent and treat birth defects. Because gestational age is directly related to an infant’s Apgar score, Apgar was one of the first at the March of Dimes to bring attention to the problem of premature birth, now one of the March of Dimes top priorities.

While Apgar was frequently the first or only woman in a department to serve in a position or win an accolade, she avoided the organized women's movement, proclaiming that "women are liberated from the time they leave the womb". Apgar was equally at home speaking to teens as she was to the movers and shakers of society. She spoke at March of Dimes Youth Conferences about teen pregnancy and congenital disorders at a time when these topics were considered taboo. Apgar never married, and died on August 7, 1974 at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. She is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.