Did you know that National Women Physicians Day is observed annually on February 3rd? Established in 1993 by the American Medical Women’s Association, this day celebrates the accomplishments of women physicians and their contributions to the medical field. While women have been practicing medicine for centuries, it wasn’t until 1849 that Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. In honor of National Women Physicians Day, I would like to introduce you to a pioneer in women’s health: Dr. Virginia Apgar.
Dr. Apgar, was born on October 7th 1909 in Westfield, New Jersey. Growing up, she had always been interested in medicine.
She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1930 and then went to Columbia University for her medical degree, graduating with honors in 1934. Upon graduating from medical school, Dr. Apgar completed a residency in Surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Having seen multiple women fail upon attempting a career as a surgeon, Columbia-Presbyterian head of Surgery, Dr. Alan Whipple, discouraged Dr. Apgar from pursuing a career as a surgeon. Instead, he encouraged her to consider Anesthesiology. At that time, there wasn’t an Anesthesiology Residency program. Therefore, her training was only for one year. She spent six months training under Dr. Ralph Waters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and six months under Dr. Ernest Rovenstine at Bellevue Hospital in New York.
After receiving her Certificate of Anesthesiology in 1937, Dr. Apgar returned to Columbia-Presbyterian, and in 1938 became the Director of their first Division of Anesthesia, as well as becoming the first female full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
It was in 1952 when Dr. Apgar made her most known advancement, the development of the Apgar Score. The Apgar Score is a test used to assess the health status of a newborn baby shortly after birth. The test is performed by a trained healthcare professional and evaluates five different criteria: heart rate, respiratory effort, muscle tone, reflex irritability and color.
In addition to developing the Apgar Score, Dr. Apgar also discovered that certain anesthetics being injected into pregnant women harmed the unborn infant. As a result, doctors discontinued the use of these anesthetics on pregnant women.
In 1959. Dr. Apgar received a master’s degree in Public Health from John Hopkins University. From that point on, she left the practice of medicine and went into research, devoting herself to the prevention of birth defects. In her quest to prevent birth defects, she traveled nationally to deliver speeches, and also became an ambassador for the March of Dimes organization.
Dr. Virgina Apgar’s research and contributions to medicine have led the way for many medical advancements that we now take for granted, such as the reduction in infant mortality rates and birth defects. Her work has helped save countless lives around the world and it is important not only because of her achievements but also because she was a woman who succeeded during a time when women were often underestimated or neglected by their male counterparts. So this National Women Physician’s Day, we honor you, Dr. Apgar. Thank you.