During the 1930s and '40s, Dr. Virginia Apgar noticed a troubling trend involving newborns.
While the infant mortality rate in the US had declined, the rate of infant deaths within the first 24 hours after birth remained constant. As an obstetric anesthesiologist, Apgar was able to identify physical characteristics that could distinguish healthy newborns from those in trouble.
Apgar's observations led to the development in 1952 of the Apgar score, a quick and convenient method for immediately evaluating how well the newborn weathered the birthing process, especially the effects of obstetric anesthesia.
Generally conducted one and five minutes after birth, the test assigns a score of zero to two for each of five criteria: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration (APGAR). Scores of seven and higher are generally normal, four to six fairly low, and three and lower are generally regarded as critically low. The test helps medical personnel determine whether a newborn needs immediate medical care.
The test spread through US hospitals in the 1960s, proving a useful measurement for quickly assessing a newborn's physical condition. The technique is still used in hospitals throughout the US.
Apgar graduated fourth in her class at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1933, and in 1949 became the first woman named a full professor at the school.
In 1959, she embarked on a second career, earning a master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Armed with her new degree, she went to work at the March of Dimes Foundation, directing research to prevent and treat birth defects.
She also published more than 60 scientific articles and several essays for newspapers and magazines during her career. Her 1972 book Is My Baby All Right? explains the causes and treatment of common birth defects and proposes precautions to help improve the chances of having a healthy baby.
Apgar died at the age of 65 in 1974.
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