This month’s “Notable Figure in Public Health” is Dr.Virginia Apgar. She played an important role in the development of a medical evaluation for newborns, called the “Apgar Score,” and she contributed to the development of an NGO organization that promotes awareness and funding for research.
The life and career of Dr.Apgar includes momentous accomplishments that have contributed to the direction of the medical field more than 50 years later. Her career began as a medical student at College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University during the onset of the Great Depression. Despite the economic and social challenges of the time, she continued to thrive in her education and even graduated 4th in her class in medical school in 1933. She wanted to pursue surgery, a field completely dominated by men at the time. At the encouragement of Dr.Whipple, upon seeing her drive and skill, she was encouraged to pursue anesthesiology after the completion of her surgical residency. At that time, anesthesiology was not a recognized specialty and the field was still under continuous growth and development. She eventually trained with the first anesthesiology department in the country, located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She returned to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons as an anesthesiologist in 1938, and when the field became a recognized specialty, she was appointed as the first full time female professor at the school.
During her time as a professor, her main focus was on obstetrical anesthesia. This is the study of the affects that anesthesia given to mothers during labor has on the newborn baby. During her study in this field, Dr.Apgar developed the Apgar Score. Changing the Face of Medicine states that the Apgar Score was “the first standardized method for evaluating a newborn’s transition to life outside the womb.” The Apgar Score scoring system evaluates newborns on their heart rate, respiration, movement, irritability, and color one minute after birth and again at five minutes after birth. The Apgar scor is represented by the APGAR acronym that represents Appearance (skin color), Pulse (heart rate), Grimace (reflex irritability), Activity (muscle tone), and Respiration. This scoring method is now an established standard of evaluation for newborns around the world. The scoring method reduced infant mortality and laid the foundations of neonatology. Furthermore, Dr.Apgar and her partners were able to establish a correlation between a newborn’s Apgar Score and the mother’s delivery conditions.
In 1958, obtained her Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins. Following this, she became involved in the March of Dimes organization for 15 years. In fact, the website states, “she became a pivotal figure in redirecting the March of Dimes mission in the 1960s from polio to birth defects and other infant health problems such as premature birth.” She acted as the head of the Division of Congenital Malformations. During her time with the organization, she promoted rubella immunization through the organization after a German Measles outbreak in the mid 1960s. She also worked tirelessly to reduce the stigma surrounding birth defects. She even co-authored a book with Joan Beck titled Is My Baby All Right? addressing birth defects.