Women’s History Month: Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)

BY SABRINA EDWARDS ’20

For National Women’s History Month, the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections are showing an exhibit on female faculty in the sciences, from Lydia Shattuck, class of 1851, to Cornelia Clapp, class of 1871. The buildings named after them and the programs they developed continue to shape our learning in a tangible way, which makes their histories relevant and their lives worth studying. 

The materials and their accompanying feature on the Archives and Special Collections webpage also highlight famous Mount Holyoke alumnae in the sciences, such as Virginia Apgar ’29, Dorothy Hansine Andersen ’22 and Janet L. Mitchell ’72. Health & Science will feature one of these women for each of our March issues in observance of National Women’s History Month. The exhibit is in Dwight Hall. 

The Apgar test, developed by Virginia Apgar ’29, remains the standard test for the health of a newborn in maternity wards and postnatal clinics around the world. Apgar was also a well-known anesthesiologist, former professor at Columbia University, former director of the National Foundation March of Dimes and recipient of multiple honorary doctorates, including one from Mount Holyoke in 1965. Apgar is often touted as one of the most famous alumnae of the College and an influential doctor and activist for infant health. 

Apgar was born in 1909 in Westfield, NJ and was one of three siblings. She had decided to become a physician while she was in high school according to the National Library of Medicine. There is speculation on the part of historians whether this decision was inspired by her father, who was also a physician, or if this came from her experience when her brother contracted tuberculosis.

At Mount Holyoke, she was a member of the college orchestra where she played violin and cello, according to the National Library of Medicine. She also wrote for Mount Holyoke News and majored in zoology. When Apgar graduated in 1929, she went directly to the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. She was one of nine women in her class. 

Though known for her work with infant healthcare and as director of the March of Dimes, Apgar was also a pioneer in anesthesiology. After graduating from Columbia in 1933, she was began her job search in the heat of the Great Depression. “Because of widespread prejudice against women doctors and poor prospects for employment during the economic depression of the 1930s, Apgar decided to enter the emerging field of anesthesiology,” according to Archives and Special Collections. Through her work as an anesthesiologist, she developed her passion for infant mortality prevention and birth defect research. 

The Apgar test itself involves adding up “scores” of zero, one and two for different criteria of newborn health, such as color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone and respiration. A perfect score of ten indicates optimal health of the baby, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. This test, as well as her written works on infant health and birth defects, were her most famous accomplishments after graduation, but her professional dedication and life as a whole have inspired many.

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