Virginia Apgar

Virginia Apgar listening via stethescope to an infant's lung function

Dr. Virginia Apgar (VP&S ‘33) was a pioneering clinician, researcher, and educator. After majoring in zoology at Mount Holyoke College, she entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, and graduated 4th in her class of 90. Two years into her surgery residency she was persuaded to switch to anesthesia by the Chair of Surgery, Dr. Alan Whipple - a reflection of the times. After training in anesthesia at the University of Wisconsin and Bellevue Hospital, she returned to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in 1938 as the first Director of the new Division of Anesthesia. Dr. Apgar dedicated herself to education and research in anesthesia and in 1949 she was appointed the first woman Professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

Dr. Apgar’s focus on obstetric and pediatric anesthesia led her, in 1952, to develop the now ubiquitous Apgar Score. This, along with her many other innovations, catalyzed the establishment of the subspecialties of perinatology and neonatology, the development of neonatal intensive care units, and the entire field of neonatal research. Beloved by her students, she was a national and international figure who was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and who was posthumously honored by having her portrait on a US postage stamp. The New York World Telegram and Sun once wrote that, “Her name is a lifeline for newborns,” and Surgeon General Julius Richmond said the she had, “done more to improve the health of mothers, babies, and unborn infants than anyone else in the 20th century.”

Dr. Virginia Apgar examining a newborn

Dr. Apgar’s dedication to teaching was legendary, and she apparently conceptualized the Apgar score while answering a student’s question about how to best evaluate newborns. She was also a lifelong violinist and luthier (maker of stringed instruments), famously fashioning a violin from a piece of wood she found in a phone booth at VP&S. The VP&S Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators is honored to be named for Dr. Apgar.