The women in this book are grouped by their field – the area of science where their work had the most impact. Funnily enough, my own fields, or the fields that I am most interested in, are at the back of the book. So the first groups of women are people I have never had a chance to learn about. I’m not particularly invested in medicine or biochemistry so am unaware of any of the great discoveries let alone the ones done by women!
In a way this makes reading about their discoveries an exercise of patience, I’m anxious to get to the women in fields I relate to. However, it also means that with my limited knowledge, their discoveries are just that much more impressive. I find myself thinking, “I didn’t even know that was a problem that needed solving!”
Such is the case with the work of Virginia Apgar (1909-1974). Virginia originally began studying surgery, but on a suggestion from her advisor, transitioned to being one of the earliest doctors to focus on anesthesiology. While this ultimately was more to help the advisor rather than Apgar, she became a prominent figure in the field. She helped develop the Division of Anesthesiology in the Department of Surgery at Presbyterian Hospital – she organized the structure of the division, trained students and performed research. She even asked for the title of director – however when the division was made into its own department she was passed over for the position of department chair and it was instead given to a male colleague.
Here is one of the times her career took a turn. While working with women in labor, she noticed that there was little data as to the health of babies and the cause of infant deaths in the first 24 hours. While she had not focused her training on babies in particular she had found a cause she wanted to help improve. She realized there had been no standard to compare newborns to in order to determine their immediate health. So, she developed a scoring system for newborns in order to describe their health in the first few minutes after delivery. (It was later given a mnemonic device using her name.) With this system, it was easy to sort the data and see trends in the health of new babies as it related to delivery methods, or type of anesthesia given to the mother. This drastically changed the outlook for newborns.
While the Apgar score is a lasting legacy of her work, Virginia didn’t stop there. She took time during her sabbatical to pursue a master’s degree in public health and devoted much of the rest of her life to educating the public on reproductive health and reducing the stigma surrounding congenital birth defects.
Apgar let her career be directed by her curiosity; being motivated to pursue many different things purely because she saw the need, wanted to learn, or wanted to contribute. She is an excellent example of how we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a narrowly defined goal – instead we have a whole range of opportunities available, we only need to find them.
This lack of limitations resonates with me in particular because of how oddly focused “astrophysics” appears to be. How am I to contribute a greater cause or find a worth while career when my expertise is in such a specific field with seemingly low societal impact? If Virginia Apgar is any example, the answer, simply put, is that astrophysics is just what I do now. Will it be what I’m doing in the future? We’ll see 😉