Every day in modern hospitals everywhere, newborn babies are examined through the eyes of Virginia Apgar.
A world-renowned physician and anesthesiologist, Apgar developed a simple system for quickly evaluating the health of newly delivered infants. Known as the Apgar score, the system relies on five observations measured on a scale of 0 to 2: heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, reflexes, and color. A rating of 10 is a perfect score.
Long before developing the Apgar score in 1952, she made strides for women in medicine. At the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Apgar was the sole woman in her class. She became the fiftieth American doctor to be a board-certified anesthesiologist. At the Columbia University School of Physicians and Surgeons, she became the first woman to head the division of anesthesiology, and the first woman to be made a full professor at the medical school.
At the age of 45, Apgar received a master’s degree in public health, which she put to use as executive director of the National Foundation March of Dimes. This position took her around the world educating the public about birth defects. In 1968 she became director of research at the foundation, and in 1972 she coauthored the book Is My Baby All Right?
Apgar estimated that she delivered some 17,000 babies in her lifetime. Though devoted to medicine and healthy babies, she was passionate about her other interests as well. A gardener, golfer, fisher, and stamp collector, she was an accomplished violinist and builder of string instruments.
In 1994, a 20-cent U.S. postage stamp was issued in honor of Apgar’s ongoing contribution to medicine and to the lives of women and children who are yet to be born.