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Then &
Now

Then & Now: Research Pays Off for All Americans
Dr. Virginia Apgar: Keeping Score at Baby's First Cry

Dr. Virginia Apgar examining a newborn baby, 1950s.

Dr. Virginia Apgar examining a newborn baby, 1950s.
Photo: Elizabeth Wilcox, Archives & Special Collections, Columbia University Health Sciences Library

Dr. Virginia Apgar examining a newborn baby, 1950s.

Dr. Apgar's advice to mothers is summarized in the slogan, "Be Good to Your Baby before It is Born." c. 1968
Photo: Mount Holyoke College Archives & Special Collections

If you were born after 1953, the first test you received evaluated your physical condition and gave you an Apgar score. The score is named for Dr. Virginia Apgar (1909-1974), a pioneering obstetrical anesthesiologist.

Born in Westfield, New Jersey, Virginia Apgar attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and studied medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in New York in the 1930s. By 1946, anesthesia was becoming an acknowledged medical specialty. In 1949, when anesthesia research became an academic department, she was appointed the first woman full professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“Every baby born in America benefits from Dr. Apgar's pioneering work to identify quickly which newborns need emergency care or have a serious birth defect.”

— Alan R. Fleischman, M.D., medical director
of the March of Dimes Foundation

She began studying the effects of anesthesia given to a mother during labor on her newborn baby. The Apgar score was the result. It was the first standardized method for evaluating the newborn's transition to life outside the womb. "Five points—heart rate, respiratory effort, muscle tone, reflex response, and color—are observed and given 0, 1, or 2 points. The points are then totaled to arrive at the baby's score." The score was presented in 1952 at a scientific meeting, and first published in 1953. The rapid, simple method reduced infant mortality and laid the foundations of neonatology, the specialty devoted to newborn care.

"Every baby born in America benefits from Dr. Apgar's pioneering work to identify quickly which newborns need emergency care or have a serious birth defect," says Alan R. Fleischman, M.D., medical director of the March of Dimes Foundation.

Dr. Apgar devoted herself to the prevention of birth defects through public education and fundraising for research. She became the director of the division of congenital defects at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes) and received many honors and awards for her work.

To Find Out More

Learn more about Dr. Apgar through the Profiles in Science program of the National Library of Medicine and through the NLM exhibit Changing the Face of Medicine, which honors the lives and achievements of women in medicine.

Winter 2010 Issue: Volume 5 Number 1 Pages 25 - 26