Virginia Apgar | Surgo

Surgo’s Eponymous Series

Virginia Apgar

by Rory Quinn

Virginia Apgar influenced the very first minute of your life, as it is said that “any child born in a modern hospital is looked at first through the eyes of Virginia Apgar”.

Apgar was born in 1909, the youngest of three siblings. Both her brothers suffered from ill health, with the eldest dying of tuberculosis and the other chronically ill. Her father was an amateur astronomer and inventor.

She gained a scholarship to study medicine at Columbia University. In 1900 there were 7,000 female doctors in the US, but when Apgar started, numbers of female doctors was dropping due to the harsh irony that as medicine was becoming more respected and regulated, many schools offering medical eduction did not accept women. She became a talented surgeon during her residency at Columbia, but was discouraged from pursuing it further by Allen Whipple (yes, the Whipple of Whipple’s), suggesting that she had the “energy and ability” to make significant contributions to anaesthetics instead. Anaesthetics was not a recognised specialty at the time, so Apgar struggled to receive training. She was unable to socialise with her male colleagues, who met in social clubs closed to women, but eventually rose to be the Director of Anaesthesia at Columbia.

Before 1950, delivery room doctors paid little attention to babies, thinking that those who were small and struggling could have little done to help them. Although for the previous 50 years more women were having deliveries in hospital, newborn mortality rate remained high and unchanging.

In 1949, Virginia Apgar became the first woman to become a full professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.  During lunch one day in 1952, a medical student asked Apgar how to evaluate the health of a newborn baby, so she scribbled down a list of quick  things to look for: appearance of the baby’s skin, pulse, breathing rate and it’s actions. From this, Apgar developed a scoring system to tell doctors if the child required intervention. This is easily remembered using the backronym (see table) APGAR, for appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, respiration. The score directly correlated with 28-day infant mortality, as babies with the worst score had mortality of 14%, and those with the best 0.13%. As well as this score, Apgar worked on the effects of anaesthetics on labour, delivery and the newborn, and attended more than 17,000 births.

In 1959, Apgar left Columbia and began studying congenital disease and used her talent for teaching to write many books, including a guide to birth defects entitled “Is My Baby All Right?” During the rubella pandemic of 1964-65 she became an advocate for universal vaccination to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

She remained fiercely energetic throughout her life, and although she avoided organised women’s movements, she always maintained that “women are liberated from the time they leave the womb” and that being female had not imposed significant limitations on her medical career.

Other Backronyms

Phrases constructed by creating a new phrase to fit into an existing name, word or acronym.

MOAB

Originally titled Massive Ordinance Air Blast, it is now better known as “Mother Of All Bombs” in response to Saddam Hussein’s phrase ‘mother of all battles’ from the first Gulf War.

Spam

“Something Posing As Meat”

SOS

Created to be an incredibly simple and unmistakable Morse code, it is incorrectly thought to be an acronym for “Save Our Souls”

Windows ®️

“Will Install Needless Data On Whole System”

AMBER Alert

Initially named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted in Texas, its backronym is “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response”.

COLBERT

NASA’s ISS treadmill is named after the comedian Stephen Colbert, but stands for “Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill”