Dr. Virginia Apgar (1909-1974) makes medical history as being among the first female doctors, and a person who made significant contributions to the fields of anesthesiology and obstetric medicine. Known as “Ginny” to her friends, she was much more than a doctor. Biographers label her as brilliant, a pioneer, an innovator, and very brave to withstand the prejudice against doctors who were anesthetists, and more particularly against the male chauvinism that was quite evident in her early years as a doctor.
It might seem strange to say that at first, Virginia Apgar was a musician. She was a brilliant cellist and violinist, who in later years made her own instruments to continue pursuing just one of her passions. Her skill as a musician earned her a place in the orchestra of Mr. Holyoke College, where she pursued a degree in Zoology.
Biographers suggest that Virginia Apgar was inspired to pursue medical school because of her own family history. When she was a child, one of her brothers died of tuberculosis, and another suffered from chronic illness. Whatever the inspiration, Apgar pursued her goal of becoming a physician with great focus, determination and concentration. She enrolled in medical school at Columbia University, just before the Great Depression. Financial difficulties followed her as she made her way through school, but did not ultimately have a dilatory effect on her success in medical school. She graduated in 1933 with grades that ranked her fourth among that year’s graduating doctors.
Her hope was to specialize in surgery, and she took a place as intern at Columbia University. Her supervisor, Dr. Alan Whipple, urged her to study anesthesiology instead. The field was still remarkably crude. Apgar had a difficult time even finding a place to train as an anesthetist.
As we know today, anesthesiology is an extremely important factor in surgery, and you want your anesthetist to be equally if not more capable than your surgeon. When Virginia Apgar first took up practice as an anesthetist, the specialty had a very low repute and was not considered on par with other specialties. She was paid less, and had difficulty finding anyone to work for her as she took up a post at Columbia University’s hospital in 1938. Within ten years, opinion on this field would undergo significant transformation. Apgar not only had people willing to work for her, but was given a professorship appointment at Columbia, the first woman doctor to receive one.
Apgar’s interest in anesthesiology soon became most focused on obstetrics. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was customary to anesthetize women giving birth. Virginia Apgar noted that babies were frequently affected by the medications given to mothers, and she sought a method of assessing infants right after they were born to determine whether medical attention was needed. This became the APGAR scoring system, which is still in use. APGAR scores look at a baby’s activity, pulse, appearance, reflex response and respiration to determine the health of the newborn.
Her studies in this area would change the field of obstetrics, and ultimately physicians came to understand that general anesthesia, and even small amounts of painkillers could have significant effects on newborns. This led to the more modern trends of delivering babies with less pain mediation, and also with modified methods for medication delivery that have less effect on a newborn.
Virginia Apgar would not be a practicing doctor when these changes occurred. In 1959, she took a master’s degree in Public Health and decided to focus her career on birth defect prevention. Her later years were spent tirelessly advocating for more funding and research on the prevention of cerebral palsy at the organization now best known as the March of Dimes.