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Virginia Apgar, MD (1909-1974): Scoring for babies

New parents anxiously await their child’s Apgar score, which is the gold standard for determining the health of a newborn. Virginia Apgar devised that score in 1953, creating the first tool to scientifically assess a neonate’s health risks and need for potentially life-saving observation.

When she graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1933, Apgar hoped to pursue surgery. A mentor discouraged her, though, so she studied anesthesiology instead, becoming the first director of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital’s new division of anesthesia in 1938.

Apgar went on to study the effects of anesthesia, labor, and delivery on a newborn’s health, and she is said to have created her tremendously influential checklist in response to a question from a student. Before the Apgar score, providers had little guidance on assessing and treating infants in their first hours, often losing babies who could have been saved.

In her 50s, Apgar launched a second career, pursuing a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University and working at the March of Dimes as vice president for medical affairs. There, she drove public attention to such vital issues as how to prevent birth defects.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond once said that Apgar had “done more to improve the health of mothers, babies, and unborn infants than anyone else in the 20th century.”