Virginia Apgar’s future seemed to be destined even before she was born in 1909. Her elder brother died of tuberculosis, and another brother suffered from chronic childhood illnesses.
Little wonder then that this extraordinary woman would go on to create a simple test that would change the course of early life child care.
Her success did not come without struggle. Despite her desire to pursue a medical career there were less than 7,000 women doctors in the US at the time she was born. Medical schools did all they could to discourage women students and qualified practitioners were often confined to obscure specialities. Despite these challenges, Apgar became the first woman professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1949.
At the time smaller newly born babies or those that were struggling were often left to die, without medical attention because the assumption was that no help was possible. Virginia wanted to do something to address this. Developed in 1952, her ‘Apgar Score’ uses five simple criteria to assess the health of a new-born baby. These are Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration. Each criterion has a score of zero to two, giving a total score for the wellbeing of the child between zero and ten. Thanks to the Apgar Score, new-borns who need urgent medical assistance can easily be identified and treated.
The Apgar score continues to be used today and has been credited with increasing baby survival rates over time. Even after her death Virginia continues to be recognised. In 1995 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
"Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me."
— Virginia Apgar