Blog
Mar 25
Blog: Still Saving Babies—Dr. Virginia Apgar's Legacy

For Women's History Month, we are highlighting a few of the many dedicated women whose work continues to inspire and influence our nation's healthcare and save lives.

Virginia Apgar, MD (1909 - 1974), is best known for her development of a system to quickly assess a newborn's condition and determine a course of action, if necessary. The Apgar Score evaluates a newborn's breathing effort, heart rate, muscle tone, reflexes, and skin color. Using this five-point assessment, the physician, midwife, or nurseit doesn't have to be a neonatologistcan determine how well the baby is doing during the first five minutes of life outside the womb.

Virginia Apgar"Every baby who is born is seen through the eyes of Dr. Apgar. Her work was a game-changer in obstetric medicine at the time, giving rise to a whole new field: neonatology," says Dr. Jennifer Lefner, chair of the Department of Pediatrics and chief of Newborn Medicine at Saratoga Hospital. "Dr. Apgar's work has had profound effects on every birth worldwide. It's an incredible achievement."

Dr. Apgar originally intended to become a surgeon, but she was strongly discouraged, as most women were at the time. So, she trained in the new field of anesthesiology, soon becoming the first woman to be a full professor at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. She conducted foundational research in the field and later became the Director of the Division of Anesthesiology.

"It's interesting to note that she didn't go grudgingly into her second choice field," Dr. Lefner says. "She was a woman who, once committed, gave her all. She not only played four string instruments, she actually learned to make them. She played seven sports in college. Her drive in anesthesiology opened doors that would not otherwise have been opened for her. It was her research in obstetric anesthesiology that led her to crate the Apgar Score. She didn't just make lemonadeshe made champagne."

Dr. Apgar didn't stop there. Her life's work focused on babies. After completing a master's in Public Health at Johns Hopkins, she went on to develop teratology, the study of birth defects. She took her knowledge and skill to become the first medical director of the National Foundation of the March of Dimes. She continues to be an inspiration to this day.

"The Virginia Apgar Award in Neonatal Medicine is given to those who have made significant and lasting contributions to the well-being and health of newborn babies. It has been awarded to pretty much every major researcher and mentor I have known in the field," Dr. Lefner says, "including Dr. Maria Delivoria-Papadopoulos and Dr. William Oh, as well as many others. Knowing the impact Dr. Apgar had when my subspecialty was in its infancy and her influence on the leaders who trained me, I feel connected to this incredible woman. My career was made possible because of her staunch determination and curious intellect."

The U.S. National Library of Medicine Studies includes a collection dedicated to Dr. Apgar where you can learn more about her. For more information on Dr. Jennifer Lefner and Saratoga Hospital Medical Group - Neonatology, please visit SaratogaHospital.org


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