Virginia Apgar

When you’re chasing a 4.0, each grade you earn may feel tremendously important. However, the most critical grade you receive is not during your junior year of high school, but a minute (and 5 minutes after) after your birth. This “grade” from 0-10, called the Apgar score, provides a quick assessment of a newborn’s health based on their skin color, pulse rate, reflex irritability, activity, and breathing. This test, the first systematized way to analyze a neonate’s health and identify babies in distress, was invented by this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Virginia Apgar.

Born in New Jersey in 1909, Virginia knew from a young age that she wanted to become a doctor. She pursued her passion, obtaining an MD from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, a prestigious school at which she later became their first female full professor. In her clinical and research work, she became determined to reduce newborn mortality, leading her to develop a scoring system that could quickly, cheaply, and accurately identify which newborns required resuscitation. Initially, the test faced resistance. However, working together with Drs. Duncan Holaday and Stanley James, she was able to show that the Apgar score correlated directly with the levels of oxygen in a baby’s blood. Today, the test it is widely adopted around the world and is attributed with saving the lives of countless newborns. In addition to her academic work, she led the National Foundation – March of Dimes’ Division of Congenital Malformations, and she was honored with numerous awards and honors. Known for her high energy, Virginia died in 1974, never having retired. This amazing woman truly made the grade. 


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