Dr. Virginia Apgar
Physician, anesthesiologist and medical researcher
Born: June 7, 1909, in Westfield, New Jersey
Died: August 7, 1974, in New York City
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2019-20: Public Service
When Virginia Apgar began her medical training at Columbia University in 1929, she was one of nine women in a class of ninety. Today, she stands alone as a pioneer in newborn health, obstetrical anesthesiology and the study of birth defects.
Apgar became interested in science and medicine as a schoolgirl in Westfield, perhaps influenced by her father, an amateur inventor and astronomer. She majored in zoology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and completed her medical degree at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons (P&S) in 1933. She began a two-year surgical internship at Presbyterian Hospital, but her mentor—fearing poor prospects for a woman surgeon—steered her into the emerging field of anesthesiology. After several years of training, she returned to Presbyterian as director of a new division of anesthesia.
Apgar was the first woman to head a division at Presbyterian, but when the division became a department, the chairmanship was given to a male colleague. Instead, she was made a full professor at P&S, the first woman to achieve that academic rank at the school. She committed herself to teaching and research, with a special interest in tracking newborn health and mortality rates.
Working with other physicians, Apgar developed a scoring system that evaluated the health of newborns based on heart rate, respiration, movement, irritability and color. According to Apgar’s biography in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the Apgar Score—introduced in 1953—“became standard practice, and is now performed on all children born in hospitals worldwide.”
As Apgar worked to refine newborn evaluation techniques, she recognized correlations between her score and birth defects. Her focus shifted to the early detection and prevention of birth abnormalities. In 1959—after earning a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health—Apgar took a job as head of a new division on congenital deformities at the National Foundation/March of Dimes.
Apgar remained with the March of Dimes for the rest of her career, leading the foundation’s research efforts for a period and bringing widespread attention to issues relating to premature births. She lectured on birth defects around the world; wrote articles for popular magazines on infant health; taught teratology (the study of birth defects) at Cornell University School of Medicine, and medical genetics at Johns Hopkins. She continued working until shortly before her death in 1974.