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For the start of Women’s History Month: Focus on Virginia Apgar

Virginia Apgar – pioneer in surgery, anesthesiology, neonatology – cross posted from 51 Percent Print E-mail
“Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!”
–Dr. Virginia Apgar, ca. 1950s, explaining why she kept basic resuscitation equipment with her at all times.Apgarat20

It has been said that every baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar. Her simple, rapid method for assessing newborn viability, the “Apgar score,” has longbeen standard practice. Developed in the early 1950s and quickly adopted by obstetric teams, the method reduced infant mortality and laid the foundations of neonatology. While best known for this achievement, Apgar was also a leader in the emerging field of anesthesiology during the 1940s and in the new field of teratology (the study of birth defects) after 1960. [The Virginia Apgar Papers]

Virginia Apgar was brilliant surgeon, yet discouraged by her mentor from practicing in that field because of his belief that women did not fare well [source]; so, Dr. Apgar joined the first residency program in anesthesiology, and became an expert in that field; eventually combining her expertises in both surgery and residency to innovate radically and successfully in the field of neonatology. Dr. Apgar was the first woman at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons to be named a full professor [source]. After ten years in that post, she completed a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. Apgar was approached by the National Foundation-March of Dimes in the spring of 1959, and offered the position of chief of its new Division of Congenital Malformations. She accepted and eventually served also  Director of Basic Medical Research (1967-1968) and Vice-President for Medical Affairs (1971-1974) [source]

Below, Virginia Apgar teaching obstetric anesthesiology at Columbia.


One friend of 51 Percent sent a memory in response to this brief commemoration. It can be found here.

43 Responses

  1. Dr. Apgar’s story is a wonderful one that I often heard about during my years working with physicians in multiple medical fields, but especially when writing a book on pediatrics. There are so many great stories about women pioneers in medicine.

    • And I really feel that for those of us who feel that women must start pioneering all over again, it helps to read about women who just put their heads and their hearts into their work and accomplished great things.

      • Hiedi, I’ve been looking forward to your series of posts during Women’s History Month.
        Hopefully more Conflucians will pony up some buckeroos for 51% – it’s time for a new women’s movement and you’ll need money to get this train moving! 51% Put Women Forward

  2. Good post Heidi. You never really think about the people behind the advances we have made in fields, at least I never really did until now.

  3. Thank you.

  4. A contemporary of Dr Apgar was another influential female physician, Helen Taussig. Dr Taussig was the “founder” of the medical specialty of pediatric cardiology.

  5. Thank you, Heidi Li, and others for filling us in on the Women Medical Pioneer’s feature. I recall learning about Apgar scores way back in nurses’ training (when I thought I might purse that career), and didn’t realize it was a woman who came up with it.

    I appreciate your filling in Women’s History we never got back when.

    • I also have long heard of Apgar scores but had no idea they were names after a woman. Thank you Heidi, what an excellent choice!

  6. Just think how brilliant this woman must have been.

    • Yes, Samsgramdma, I had the same thought. Here she was sort of pushed into a field she knew nothing about and did so much – can you imagine if she had stayed in her chosen field – but then there are those who would say that she was a gift to millions of babies and meant to save all those lives.

  7. Another female physician pioneer is Joycelyn Elders. She had a few more problems to overcome other than being a woman.
    Born Minnie Lee Jones (she changed her name in college to Joycelyn, the name of her favorite peppermint candy), she was the eldest of eight children, which made her the foreman when each of them got old enough to help in the cotton fields that her daddy sharecropped. He also trapped raccoons and she helped him skin them. They ate the raccoons and he saved the money from the skins to buy swatches of land for himself, eventually accumulating 80 acres.

    School for blacks was a two-room house at Bright Star (the one in Howard County, not the one farther south in Miller County), where there were benches but no desks, no workbooks and few books. School was held when there was no work to be done in the fields. The school bus was an old truck chassis with a flatbed covered by a big plank box with chicken wire nailed over the window openings so the children wouldn’t tumble out. High school was the training school for black children still farther east at Tollette although few went to high school.

    But there was a reasonable semblance of education going on both places. In 1944, she got a better chance. Her father got a wartime job in the Richmond Shipyards on San Francisco Bay and she and her mother and the smallest baby joined him for two years. For the first time she attended school with whites. The school tested her and placed her two grades ahead of her age group. She excelled for two years and she got the idea that she was as bright as white kids and might do something more than work in the cotton fields or even clerk in a dime store at Nashville, which had been her farfetched ambition. Only whites were store clerks in Arkansas in the 1940s.


    • That article about Dr. Elders is quite interesting.

    • Thank you for this link, what an encouraging life story. I agree, education = emancipation, the one way out of being treated unequally.

  8. Heidi, thank you for this, all those years working in pediatrics, I thought the Apgar score was named after a man!

    btw, I have often been thinking of my best friend in grade school. She was quite a character. We grew up in a close in DC suburb which was not very affluent, to say the least. She came from a very large family and her mom was one of the few working moms I knew- she was a Professor of Physics at University of Maryland. This was probably very rare at the time, but I thought nothing of it, she was just my friend’s mom. Now that I see how difficult it has been for me and many i know to reach their full potential, as Hillary would put it, my friend’s mom was a heroine.

    • woops- forgot to add this was in the mid-60’s

      • That’s nice lililam-her mom managing to have both a very large family and a professorship at the same time.

  9. The update from the friend at 51% about the encounter with the military nurse is very interesting.

  10. Off-topic but…I just noticed that Liberal Rapture got added to the Blog Roll. Yay!! 🙂

  11. Hey cool, Heidi! I deal with the APGAR score with every baby I deliver – obviously some are better than others but it is amazing how rapidly a low APGAR baby can start looking good.

  12. Whoohoo! I have a snow day! And I didn’t even have to wear my clothes inside out and backwards.

    • OMG! I just checked, and I have a snow day too!!! I can’t believe it. I was just about to start shoveling.

      Congrats, RD!

      • Rats – all the flights have been cancelled and I was supposed to start vacation today 😥

      • me too Wohooo I NEVER worked anywhere before where we had a snow day !! if it snowed and you couldn’t make it a volunteer in some monster 4 wheel vehicle would come and get you !!! !!!

    • Good morning Morpheus. Are we ready for another day of battle with Agent Smith and his drones. Looks like we are working from inside the mothership today. Trinity will be contacting you later this morning, on the landline. Stay off the iPhone.

  13. morning RD KiKi I got home safe and went over to my brothers and sister in laws house took a day off from the blogg roll….we watched the devil wears prada. Can you believe the boyfriend he was such an A-hole being mad at his girlfriend for putting career first…

    great theread happy womans Herstory month!

    I had a wonderful time with Kiki she is a great puma and she gave me a lovely Puma tote as we had a wonderful evening with dinner drag show and PUMA talk for dessert it was truely sweet…

    OH and the Girl Scouts has to get them cookies out earlier I have 20 boxes and cant nibble on a single thin mint until easter!

    • We have PUMA totes now? Where can I get one? Do I have to make a pledge?

      • Ask Kiki yes it is red an black and all the smart politically savy people are carrying them….

        I am sure it will be the talk of the office when I bring it in!

  14. Good post Heidi.

  15. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I noticed that Dr. Apgar never married or had children (despite the fact of her service to millions of babies). She was obviously a incredibly smart and gifted woman, but like so many back then had to sacrifice so much to be a successful woman. When asked why she never married, she said that she couldn’t find a man that could cook. (I love her!!)

    I’m not suggesting that marrying and having children is the key to a woman’s fulfillment, just pointing out the times she lived in.

    Happy Women’s History Month.

    • No more airbases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan means across the entire Middle East and Central Asia, the only US airbases between Turkey and Diego Garcia are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is that right? Is that one of the stated goals for our sustaining military presence there. Because as impossibly heroic as our troops have been, they deserve to know what the mission is. Turn Iraq and Afghanistan into a western style democracy. Get rid of the Taliban. Eliminate Al Qaeda. Kill Osama. Teach Islam a lesson. Educate the heathens on human rights. Stay, because leaving would make worse the devastation we helped create. Keep churning military production.

      Which of these, in what priority, for how long, and how does each weigh against the lives of our over stretched troops. What have we learned from history. Does Barry have a vision. More questions than answers, like before.

  16. This is great and I am ashamed to admit, after three babies, I never knew this. Thanks Heidi!

  17. This is a great post , Heidi Li thank you ; so many women go unrecognised and their contributions lost to history .
    Contributing to that loss is the (anonymous ) women behind the men myth ; which has been the social norm for so long , We as women are ” rewarded ” for our anonymity, reticence, and willingness to give the the credit for accomplishments to someone else, usually male .
    This is a nice site … The National Women’s History Project

  18. I’m so looking forward to this month of learning about these great women, from a great woman. Thank you Heidi!

  19. Great post. I want to participate in the Women’s History contest on March 11th, but I feel as though I know so little. Posts like this will go a long way towards educating me, I think.

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