Virginia Apgar: Why Google honours her today

Described as a leader in the field of anaesthesiology, Virginia Apgar would have been 109 on Thursday.

    Virginia Apgar would have been 101 on Thursday [Getty Images]
    Virginia Apgar would have been 101 on Thursday [Getty Images]

    Described as a leader in the field of anesthesiology and hailed for developing the Apgar score system, a test that determines 60 seconds after birth whether a baby needs help to sustain life, Virginia Apgar would have been 109 on June 7.

    In her honour, Google is changing its logo in 15 countries to a doodle, or illustration, of her and the Apgar score.

    But in her lifetime, the doctor was not always appreciated for her achievements. This is her story:

    A potential doctor

    • Apgar was born in New Jersey. She was the youngest of three children. Her father was an insurance executive, but also an inventor and astronomer.  

    • Before she was born, her eldest brother died from tuberculosis, and the other one suffered from chronical diseases. 

    • This inheritance motivated her to study zoology, chemistry and physiology before attending Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and obtaining a medical degree in 1933.

    • However, she was soon discouraged by Dr Allen Whipple, the chairman of surgery at Columbia Medical Center, from pursuing her career as a surgeon.

    Era of female doctor shortage

    • According to a publication on The Time, there were only 7,000 women doctors in the United States before she was born, but the number dropped even further around the time she was born.

    • Many of the schools that offered accepted medical education did not admit women at all. Women who did manage to attain the medical degree were often discouraged.
    • She was no exception and she was instead encouraged to practice anaesthesiology. Dr Whipple felt advancements were needed in that area, and she seemed to have the "energy and ability."

    • She eventually rose and became director of Columbia University's department of anaesthesia, and in 1949 she became the first woman to become a full-time professor at Columbia University.
    • She became a leading figure in the fields of anaesthesiology and teratology. As attending anesthesiologist at Presbyterian Hospital, she assisted in the delivery of close to 20,000 babies.

    Apgar Score 

    • In the 1950s, the US infant mortality rate decreased, but the number of infant deaths within the first 24 hours remained high. 

    • She noticed that infants who were blue or were struggling to breathe were listed as stillborn and left to die. The scientist began investigating methods for decreasing the infant mortality.
    • She developed a test known as the Apgar Score, which measures body functions and helps doctors determine within 60 seconds after the birth whether a baby needs help to sustain life.

    • The functions are heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, reflexes and skin colour. Through this method, she found out that a baby with a poor rating could be resuscitated by oxygen and warming.

    • Babies get a score of zero, one or two for each of those factors, and the total scores let doctors know if something is wrong. 

    • Apgar's work contributed to a drop in deaths, from one in 30 in the 1950s to one in 500 today. The Apgar score is still used in some hospitals in the US.

    Rubella pandemic 

    • During the rubella pandemic of 1964, Apgar became an advocate for universal vaccination to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease.

    • Rubella could cause serious disorders if a woman becomes infected while pregnant.

    • Apgar promoted effective use of a testing, which can identify women who are at risk for transmission of antibodies across the placenta.

    • She devoted the rest of her life to prevent conditions that caused newborns to have low Apgar scores.

    • During her career, she maintained optimism and used to say "women are liberated from the time they leave the womb."
    • She also joined what is now the March of Dimes Foundation to promote fundraising and public education on congenital effects. 

    • Apgar never got married, "I never found a man who could cook," she said. She died in 1974 at the age of 65 from cirrhosis of the liver. 


    • Dr Apgar received honorary doctorates from the Woman's Medical College of Pensylvania in 1954 and Mount Holyoke College in 1955.

    • The Elizabeth Blackwell Award from the American MedicaL Women's Association in 1966.

    • The Alumni Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement from Columbia University in 1973.

    • She was elected Woman of the Year in Science by the Ladies Home Journal in 1973.

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