Dr. Virginia Apgar may not be a household name, but the test she created has saved the lives of babies around the world and on what would have been her 109th birthday, she gets the Google Doodle she deserves.
At a time when few women went to medical school, Apgar attended the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, obtaining a medical degree in 1933. She wanted to be a surgeon, but was discouraged by the (male) chairman of surgery. Instead she became an anesthesiologist, eventually becoming director of Columbia University’s department of anesthesia. In 1949, she became the first woman to become a full-time professor at Columbia University. While those accomplishments are impressive, particularly for a woman at the time, her real contribution to the world is the so-called Apgar Score.
As an anesthesiologist, she attended close to 20,000 births. She noticed that the number of infant deaths within the first 24 hours remained high, despite the fact that overall the U.S. infant mortality rate was decreasing. She devised a test for evaluating the health of newborns, focusing on five factors with the helpful mnemonic device of the first letters of each factor spelling her last name: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration. The test is given within the first five minutes after birth and helps doctors determine which infants need medical care.
Apgar was able to link the scores to infant mortality, proving that her test could really make a difference. The Apgar score was quickly adopted by hospitals across the U.S. and eventually worldwide and is credited for lowering the national infant mortality rate. She devoted the rest of her life to prevent conditions that caused newborns to have low Apgar scores.