Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Virginia Apgar
Virginia Apgar "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me."

Virginia Apgar (1909–1974)
MD 1933
Faculty 1935–59

A pioneer in anesthesiology as well as maternal and child health, Apgar is best known for developing the Apgar score, a systematic assessment of neonatal viability known to medical personnel and parents throughout the world. Apgar is also credited with founding the field of perinatology. As her interests expanded to genetics, she also became instrumental in broadening public understanding of birth defects as a national health problem. She was the coauthor of Is My Baby All Right? in 1973. In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Apgar as part of its Great Americans series.  Former Surgeon General Julius Richmond said, "[She has] done more to improve the health of mothers, babies, and unborn infants than anyone in the twentieth century."

One of four women to enter the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) in 1929, Apgar graduated fourth in her class.  While she intended to become a surgeon, she was encouraged for reasons likely having to do with gender discrimination to pursue a career in anesthesiology by Dr. Allen Whipple, chairman of the surgery department. In 1938, at the age of 29, she was invited back to Columbia to head the new division of anesthesiology. She was the medical school's first female division head. In addition to her clinical responsibilities, she built a residency program and, in 1949, became the first woman appointed to a full professorship at P&S. In 1959, Apgar obtained a master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins. Her study of genetics there sparked an interest in birth defects, which led directly to an executive position with the March of Dimes. For the next 14 years, until her death in 1974, Apgar served as an advocate, fund-raiser, an educator. Apgar was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1995. The Virginia Apgar Award is given annually by the American Academy of Pediatrics for outstanding contributions to the field of perinatal pediatrics.

Read about a Columbia Health Sciences symposium offered in 2002 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apgar score.

A recent C250 symposium explored how genetic research will influence the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases in the decades ahead.
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