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Who was Virginia Apgar? Google honors trailblazing doctor who saved millions of babies

In honor of what would have been Dr. Virginia Apgar’s 109th birthday, Google wants to say thank you.

  

The search engine paid a colorful doodle tribute Thursday to the late anesthesiologist’s innovative contributions that ultimately helped save the lives of millions of children since the 1950s.

Born on June 7, 1909, in Westfield, New Jersey, Apgar grew up with a love for music, much like her family. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, her childhood home had a basement laboratory, where her father tapped into his scientific curiosity, building a telescope and experimenting with electricity and radio waves.

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Apgar, too, would go on to chase her scientific curiosity, but in high school, she was a reporter at the school newspaper, a star athlete, an actor on the drama team and she played violin.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1929, working multiple jobs to support herself throughout, she enrolled at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons right at the peak of the Great Depression.

Though she was rejected from her surgery residency, Apgar ended up becoming a leader in anesthesia and eventually became the first female department head at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center when she accepted the role as director of anesthesiology.

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But the scientist is best known for the iconic Apgar Score System, which she presented and published in the early 1950s. During this time in progressive medicine, while more women were having babies in hospitals, the newborn mortality rate was still quite high, according to Time.

“As late as the 1940s, delivery-room doctors focused on mothers and paid little attention to babies,” Apgar’s friend, Melinda Beck, told the Wall Street Journal. “Those who were small and struggling were often left to die, since doctors assumed little could be done for them.”

One day, over lunch, a medical student asked Apgar how she would evaluate the health of a newborn baby. So she jotted down a list of signs and symptoms to watch out for, developing a scoring system to accompany the list.

The 1949 five-part test assessed a newborn’s heart rate, respiration, color, reflexes and muscle tone and was initially meant to be administered one minute after birth, though it was later used at the five- and 10-minute marks as well.

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The Apgar Newborn Scoring System was eventually adopted as a worldwide standard to determine a newborn’s chance of survival. 

“Every baby born in America benefits from Dr. Apgar's pioneering work to identify quickly which newborns need emergency care or have a serious birth defect,” Dr. Alan R. Fleischman told MarchOfDimes.org in 2009 in celebration Apgar’s 100th birthday. “The babies whose lives are saved by the special care in newborn intensive care particularly benefit from your efforts to develop the resources that made these units possible.”

According to the Google blog, some doctors remembered the test by using an acronym of her last name (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration).

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During her time as a researcher, Apgar also studied the effects of anesthesia on women during childbirth and found that a commonly used anesthesia (cyclopropane) was harmful to the baby. When she published the research, doctors all over the nation stopped using the anesthesia.

She was undoubtedly married to her work and when asked why she never married and had babies of her own, she said, “It’s just that I haven’t found a man who can cook.” 

Apgar died of cirrhosis on Aug. 7, 1974 in New York. She was 65. 

One year before her death, Apgar received the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Medicine from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, becoming the first woman to earn the honor. It was only one of her many accolades.

Apgar was also later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her progressive attitudes toward race and gender, along with her significant contributions to medicine.

Read more about the innovator at google.com/doodles.

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