Dr. Virginia Apgar, an American anesthetist who is credited with being a pioneer in the field of neonatology, or the medical care of newborn infants, is being celebrated with a Google Doodle. June 7, 2018, marks what would have been her 109th birthday.
In addition to her groundbreaking studies, which helped to detect birth defects within moments of a baby’s birth, Apgar is best known for being the inventor of the Apgar score, which is a way to assess the health of newborn children immediately after their birth. Time reports that the method is responsible for a decrease in the infant mortality rate in the 1950s.
Here’s what you need to know about Dr. Virginia Apgar:
1. She Developed an Interest in Medicine at an Early Age
Apgar was born in New Jersey on June 7th, 1909. She developed a passion for medicine at an early age, partly through her father; who was an amateur astronomer and electrician, and partly through her siblings; who were forced to deal with chronic illness. According to TIME, Apgar’s oldest brother died of tuberculosis before she was even born, while her other brother Lawrence was bedridden for much of his childhood. These experiences were pivotal for Apgar, as they established a desire to help children that would go on to define her medical career.
After graduating from Westfield High School in 1925, Apgar attended Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in zoology and was involved in a number of school clubs. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apgar was a reporter for the school newspaper, an actor in the school’s theatre troupe, and an athlete on seven of the school’s sports teams. One professor took note of her exceptional work ethic, telling the Library of Medicine: “It is seldom that one finds a student so thoroughly immersed in her subject and with such a wide knowledge of it.”
Apgar graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1929, and shortly after, began training at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She completed her M.D. in 1933 with the intention of becoming a surgeon.
2. She Helped Bolster the Medical Field of Anesthesiology
Apgar won a surgical internship at Columbia the following year. During her time there, however, she was pulled aside by chief surgeon Alan Whipple and told that she should reconsider her career path. Whipple explained that he had seen several women before her attempt and fail to become a surgeon, and advised that Apgar enter into anesthesiology instead. His rationale, according to the Changing the Face of Medicine website, was that there were still innovations and improvements to be made in anesthesiology, and that Apgar had the “the energy, intelligence, and ability needed to make significant contributions in this area.”
Apgar heeded Whipple’s advice, and spent six months training under Dr. Ralph Waters, who led the first department of anesthesia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She graduated from the University in 1937, and spent an additional six months with Dr. Ernest Rovenstine at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Due to the relative obscurity of anesthesiology, Apgar struggled to be seen as an equal by her physician counterparts for the first part of her career.
Apgar returned to Columbia University in 1938, where she was hired on as an attending anesthesiologist and appointed the director of the division of anesthesia. Despite the fact that she tried to recruit a team of physicians to work for her, Apgar was Columbia’s only staff member until 1946, when anesthesia began to gain credibility in the medical world. Apgar’s hard work eventually paid off in 1949, when she was appointed the first woman full professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She remained there until 1959.
3. She Never Married Because She ‘Never Found a Man Who Could Cook’
Apgar was known for her tireless dedication to her work. In the 2002 book Women in Medicine: An Encyclopedia, author Laura Lynn Windsor recounted an instance where a newborn baby died, and rather than let it be, Apgar snuck into the morgue to determine the cause. She discovered that a small artery had been clamped and that she was the one who clamped it. She immediately tracked down the surgeon and admitted her mistake, stating that it was more important to learn from her mistakes than it was to avoid blame.
She was also known for saying “Nobody, but nobody is going to stop breathing on me!!” in the event that a newborn infant suffered an emergency.
As a result of this dedication, Apgar never married or had any children of her own. When asked why she hadn’t settled down, she quipped: “It’s just that I haven’t found a man who can cook.” Apgar maintained a number of hobbies during her life, particularly when it came to music, as she built up a collection of cellos, violas, and violins.
In the book Pioneers of Medical Research: Biographies of 25 Outstanding Scientists, a friend of Apgar’s revealed that she once stole a shelf from a colleague’s maple cupboard so that she could build a cello with it. The friend playfully referred to the incident as the “phone booth caper.”
TIME reports that Apgar also enjoyed flying, fishing, photography, golf, and gardening.
4. She Invented the ‘Apgar Score’ in 1953
Apgar developed the Apgar score during her time at Columbia University. She noticed that the number of infants who died within 24 hours of their birth was alarmingly high during the 1930s and 40s, and went about creating a system that could combat this. For the Apgar score, each baby is given a score of 0,1, or 2 in each of the following categories: heart rate, respiration, color, muscle tone, and reflex irritability. The scores would then be compiled for a number between 0 and 10, with 0 being alarming condition and 10 being the best possible condition.
The Virginia Apgar Papers reports that thousands of infants were successfully given the Apgar score between 1952 and 1958, and that by the 1960s, it became a technique employed at hospitals nationwide. It is still used today. “Every baby born in America benefits from Dr. Apgar’s pioneering work to identify quickly which newborns need emergency care or have a serious birth defect”, said Dr. Alan R. Fleischman, “The babies whose lives are saved by the special care in newborn intensive care particularly benefit from her efforts to develop the resources that made these units possible.”
The success of the Apgar score raised Apgar’s profile in the medical world, and she used this success to explore other issues related to newborn babies. According to the March of Dimes website, she influenced the creation of the first Committee on Perinatal Health, which helped normalize intensive care units around the country, and she spoke at several March of Dimes Conferences about teen pregnancy and birth defects; despite their taboo reputation in the 1960s.
5. She Was Inducted Into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995
Apgar, who died from cirrhosis in 1974, received a number of prestigious (and posthumous) honors. She received honorary doctorates from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and Mount Holyoke, the Distinguished Service Award from the American Society of Anesthesiologists, and the Ralph M. Waters Award from the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
She became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Medicine from the College of Physicians & Surgeons in 1973, and was named the Woman of the Year in Science by Ladies Home Journal the same year. In 1994, she was pictured on a U.S. postage stamp as part of the Great Americans series. In 2010, she was selected as one of the fifteen honorees for Women’s History Month, which honors “outstanding women for their unrelenting and inspirational persistence, and for understanding that, by fighting all forms of discrimination against women and girls, they have have shaped America’s history and our world.”
One of her greatest honors, however, came in 1995, when she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. As one of the charter inductees, Apgar was recognized for her contributions to the medical world, and for her forward-thinking attitude towards race and gender.