|Papers of Virginia Apgar Added to National Library of Medicine’s
Profiles in Science Web Site
Bethesda, Maryland — The National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science
Web site has been enriched by the addition of the papers of Virginia Apgar, M.D.,
creator of the widely used Apgar Score to evaluate newborns. The Library has
collaborated with the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections
to digitize her papers and make them widely available. This brings to 18 the
number of notable scientists who have personal and professional records included
in Profiles. The site is at http://www.profiles.nlm.nih.gov.
In 1949, faced with unacceptably high newborn mortality rates in her hospital’s
maternity ward, Virginia Apgar (1909-1974), an anesthesiologist, set out to ensure
that newborns in distress got the prompt attention they needed. Using the same
signs anesthesiologists monitored during and after surgery — heart rate, respiration,
reflex irritability, muscle tone, and color — she developed a simple, rapid method
for assessing the medical condition of newborn babies. Quickly adopted by obstetric
teams, her method (now known as the Apgar Score) reduced infant mortality and
laid the foundations of neonatology.
“Dr. Apgar brought enormous intelligence and energy to everything she did. Her
newborn scoring method put neonatology on a firm scientific basis, and she made
substantial contributions to anesthesiology and the study of birth defects. I
personally found her a memorable and inspiring teacher,” said Donald A. B. Lindberg,
M.D., Director of the National Library of Medicine.
Born on June 7, 1909, in Westfield, New Jersey, Apgar attended Mount Holyoke
College, and then received her M.D. from the Columbia University College of Physicians
and Surgeons in 1933. Although she completed a two-year surgical internship at
New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, her mentor there discouraged her from pursuing
a surgical career, noting that women surgeons rarely achieved financial success.
Instead he recommended that she enter anesthesiology, then a new medical specialty.
Apgar subsequently trained with anesthesiology pioneer Ralph Waters at the University
of Wisconsin, and in 1938 returned to Presbyterian Hospital as the director of
a new Division of Anesthesia. She transformed the anesthesia service during the
next decade, establishing an anesthesiology education program and replacing nurse-anesthetists
In 1949, Apgar was appointed a full professor of anesthesiology and she stepped
down as director of the Division of Anesthesia. Free of administrative duties,
she continued to teach and devoted more time to research in obstetrical anesthesia.
Within three years, she developed the Apgar scoring method, and started using
score data from thousands of infants to assess the results of obstetric practices,
types of maternal pain relief, and effects of resuscitation.
Apgar was a legendary clinical teacher, well known for her fierce dedication
to patients of all ages. She kept basic resuscitation equipment with her at all
times, both on and off duty, explaining, “Nobody, but nobody is going to stop
breathing on me!”
During a sabbatical year in 1958–1959, Apgar earned a Master of Public Health
degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She accepted an offer from
the National Foundation—March of Dimes to head its new Division of Congenital
Malformations, and began a new career as the Foundation’s ambassador. She was
responsible for reviewing grant applications for studies in this area, raising
public and professional awareness of birth defects and the research in progress,
and encouraging support for the National Foundation’s research efforts. Apgar
traveled thousands of miles each year between 1960 and 1974, talking to members
of NF local chapters and parent-teacher groups, speaking at professional conferences,
giving interviews, appearing on television talk shows, and participating in NF
fundraising events. Her efforts helped double the foundation’s annual income
during her tenure. From 1965 to 1974 she also served on the clinical faculty
at Cornell University School of Medicine, specializing in the study of birth
The online exhibit features correspondence, published articles, photographs,
lectures, and speeches from Apgar’s files. An introductory exhibit section places
Apgar’s achievements in historical context.
Profiles in Science was launched September 1998 by the National Library
of Medicine. The Library, the world’s largest library of the health sciences,
is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research
Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal
agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical
research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common
and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.