Thursday's Google Doodle Celebrates Anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar

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Virginia Apgar was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 109th birthday of physician Virginia Apgar, who developed the scale doctors still use to quickly gauge the health of newborn babies: the Apgar score.

The Apgar score a 0-10 scale with five criteria: Appearance (skin color, ranging from blue or pale to a healthy flesh color), Pulse, Grimace (response to stimulation, ranging from no response to an unhappy expression to full-fledged crying), Activity (arm and leg movement), and Respiration. (Conveniently, those words spell out APGAR.) Most healthy babies score a 7 or above, and anything below a 3 requires immediate medical care.

Apgar graduated from medical school in 1933. During her residency, the chairman of surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian medical center steered her toward anesthesiology, partially because surgery was an especially difficult field for women to find career opportunities in at the time, but also reportedly because he believed she had what it took to advance the field in important ways. Anesthesiology had, until recently, been the domain of nurses, but by the late 1930s had become complex enough to require physicians, and the medical field was working hard to catch up.

By 1938, Apgar was the director of a brand-new division of anesthesia at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she spent the next decade running the department, developing a residency program to train new anesthesiologists, and treating patients.

Apgar was a faculty member at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in the early 1950s when she noticed that although the infant mortality rate was improving, that was mostly due to interventions after the first 24 hours. Within that crucial window of time 24 hours after birth, there had been no change in infant mortality since 1930. Apgar wanted to know why the medical field hadn’t gotten better at saving newborns – and how to fix it. The result was the Apgar score.

Later in her career, Apgar advocated for universal vaccination against rubella to help prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease, which causes miscarriages or severe birth defects. She also worked to promote testing for birth defects.

She died in 1974 at the hospital where she attended medical school and spent two decades of her career.

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