Important People of Medicine: Virginia Apgar
If you’ve ever had, or been around a baby that was born in a hospital, Dr. Apgar’s name probably sounds familiar. An anesthesiologist and teratologist (one who studies abnormalities of physical development), Virginia Apgar is most well-known for the "Apgar score" - a rating given to infants at 1 and 5 minutes after birth, which is often a determining factor in whether or not the baby needs to remain in the hospital after birth.
Dr. Apgar was the first female doctor to receive professorship at Columbia University medical school, and her work in teratology during the rubella pandemic of 1964-65 led to her outspoken advocacy for universal vaccination against that disease. Though it’s often mild and annoying above all else in healthy people, when pregnant women contract rubella (also known as German measles), the rate of deformity and disability of their children skyrockets. It can even cause miscarriage.
Virginia Apgar also promoted universal Rh-testing among pregnant women. This test shows whether a woman has a different Rh blood type than her fetus, because if she does, she can develop antibodies that can cross the placenta and destroy fetal blood cells. This can cause fetal hydrops and high levels of neonatal mortality, but can be prevented by administering anti-RhD IgG injections to the mother during pregnancy, so that she does not develop a sensitivity (and subsequent antibodies) to her baby’s blood type.
Though Dr. Apgar never married or had children of her own, she saved the lives of countless babies and streamlined many medical considerations of neonatal care, resulting in more effective medical treatment. She studied and promoted the prevention of premature births and causes of fetal deformity. She worked for March of Dimes and taught thousands of students. Her influence in the obstetrics and neonatology fields cannot be overstated.