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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Woman of the Week – Virginia Apgar

Posted June 04, 2018 4:30 PM by lmno24

Most people have been effected by Virginia Apgar’s discoveries, most likely during our first moments of life.

She’s most well known for creating a system aptly named the Apgar Score, used to determine if a newborn needs special medical care to stay alive.

She was born in 1909 into a family who valued science and learning. Her father was an electrician with an interest in astronomy. Unfortunately, medical misfortune also ran in the family. Her parents lost a child before she was born to tuberculosis and her other brother struggled with childhood illnesses. Her sibling’s ailments sparked her interest in medicine.

She lived in a time when very few women attended college and even fewer were in the medical field. She was admitted to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) in the 1930’s. It was there that she completed a residency as well.

Though noticed as a student with a talent for surgery, the chairman of surgery at Columbia discouraged her from pursing it, simply because he had seen many women try it and fail. Instead, he pushed her to pursue anesthesia. She did, and saw success after training under several doctors and later returning to P&S as the director of the newly formed anesthesiology department.

She built the department from the ground up from staffing to administrative duties. She had difficulty staffing the department at times, since anesthesiology had been switched from a nursing specialty to a physician specialty only shortly before the department was formed. Surgeons were not used to having an MD with specialized anesthesiology training; the pushback was felt for years, as staffing and funding was cut.

After World War II ended however, things bounced back. As the specialty grew in popularity, Apgar's development of its residency program prompted P&S to establish an official department in 1949.

But, she was not made head of the department. The job was given to her colleague, Dr. Emmanuel Papper. She was given a staff position. She was also the first woman to be made a full time professor at P&S.

She also delved into her trademark work after noticing a trend in the infant mortality rate. She noticed that in the U.S., infant mortality rates were decreasing, but infants dying within 24 hours of birth was not changing. She began to investigate what might be causing this. The research led to what is now known as the Apgar score, a method of assessing a newborn’s health.

Each newborn is given a score of 0, 1, or 2 (a score of 2 meaning the newborn is in optimal condition, 0 being in distress) in each of the following categories: heart rate, respiration, color, muscle tone, and reflex irritability. The scores are then compiled and each baby is given a total score between 0 and 10. The scoring process was used in the mid-late 50s among Apgar and her colleagues and proved effective. From there, it was widely used in the 1960’s and is still in use today.

Apgar lived a work-focused life. She generally did not share her opinion loudly, but sometimes spoke of female equality and her frustrations with unequal salaries. She never let her gender hold her back, despite societal pressures.

Apgar died of cirrhosis of the liver on August 7, 1974 at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. She is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.

Previous Cr4 coverage: What’s Your Apgar Score?

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