Reprinted with permission of the

American Society of Anesthesiologists,

Published in the ASA NEWSLETTER

December, 1995 Volume 59 Number 12


Virginia Apgar, M.D. Inducted Into National Women's Hall of Fame

Written by Selma Harrison Calmes, MD

Anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar, M.D. (1909-1974) was inducted on October 14, 1995 into the NationaI Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Dr. Apgar was honored with a U.S. postal stamp last October for the development of the Apgar Score, which evaluates the transition of newborn babies to extrauterine life. Dr. Apgar is the only anesthesiologist and the third woman physician to be honored with a U.S. stamp (see ASA NEWSLETTER, January and April, 1994).

Dr. Apgar was the first Director of the Division of Anesthesiology at Columbia from 1938-49, served ASA as Treasurer from 1941-45 and was awarded the ASA

Distinguished Service Award in 1961. She was the first woman Officer of ASA

and the first woman recipient of its Distinguished Service Award.

Seventeen women also were inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame that day. Other awardees included: astronaut Eileen Collins (b. 1956), the first woman to pilot the space shuttle; Lillian Moller Gilberth (1878-1972). industrial engineer and motion study expert whose work greatly improved industrial output during World War II and whose family life with her 12 children was documented in the hilarious book Cheaper by the Dozen; Sandra Day O'Connor (b. 1930), first woman Justice of the Supreme Court; Elizabeth Hanford Dole (b. 1936), first woman Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Labor and now President of the American Red Cross; and singer Ella Fitzgerald (b. 1918).

Because 1995 marks the 75th anniversary of national women's suffrage, Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), a suffragist who founded The Lily, the first newspaper devoted to equality for women, and Anne Dallas Dudley (1876-1955), key leader in the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, were included in the honorees.

The National Women's Hall of Fame is located in Seneca Falls, New York. The women's rights movement was organized there in July, 1848 during a women's convention. A list of demands resulted, including women's right to vote and also to enter the medical profession.


Dr. Apgar's Instruments - Donated to Columbia


Nicholas Cunningham, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics and Public Health at Columbia University, announced that the four stringed instruments handcrafted by Dr. Apgar have been donated to Columbia University and are available for rental to suitable The instruments were in danger of being separated until they were purchased by a group of pediatricians who donated them to Columbia. The group, led by Joe Butterfield, M.D. of Denver, Colorado, raised $30,000 for the purchase of the instruments. Dr. Apgar, who developed the Apgar Score for assessing newborns, was a dedicated musician since childhood.

A preoperative visit to a patient in 1956 led to Dr. Apgar's interest in constructing stringed instruments. This patient was Carleen Hutchings, a high school science teacher and musician. Her interest in how stringed instruments produce sound prompted Mrs. Hutchings to do studies in a home laboratory and, eventually, to construct fine stringed instruments based on her scientific studies. She also published scientific articles on sound production. She had one of her self-made violins with her when she was in the hospital for surgery, and she invited Dr. Apgar to play it during the preoperative visit.

Enchanted by the excellent sound quality of the instrument, Dr. Apgar joined Mrs. Hutchings in her studies and later learned instrument construction from her. Working from 12:00 midnight to 2:00 a.m. (much to the chagrin of her neighbors who were trying to sleep), Dr. Apgar produced four stringed instruments - a violin, mezzo violin, cello and viola - in her small apartment's bedroom filled with woodworking tools and a workbench. Dr. Apgar usually carried the cello or viola with her on her frequent travels and often joined chamber music groups in cities she visited for a night of playing.

Dr. Apgar's career as a musical instrument maker led to one of the most well-known stories about her, sometimes referred to as the famous "phone booth caper." As her instrument-making career developed, she was always looking for suitable fine wood to use. In 1957, Mrs. Hutchings spotted an excellent piece of curly maple, which was perfect for the back of the viola that Dr. Apgar wanted to make. The wood, however, happened to be the shelf in a pay telephone booth in the lobby of the Harkness Pavilion of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Since it was not possible to get the shelf through channels of the hospital's bureaucracy, the two began to plan carefully to take another approach.

First, Dr. Apgar had to make a replacement shelf, but the stain would have to be an exact match to the one in the phone booth. Incredibly, a chance con-versation at a hardware store near the hospital led them to the correct stain: the store owner had supplied the original stain to the hospital 27 years earlier. Tools were taken to the hospital in a suitcase. Mrs. Hutchings began her work in the phone booth late at night, with Dr. Apgar standing guard in the hall, dressed in her hospital uniform. When the night watchman came by on his rounds, Dr. Apgar would tap on the door of the booth, and Mrs. Hutchings would put a dime in the phone, pretending to make a call.

The shelf-napping plan almost hit a snag when, to Mrs. Hutching's dismay, the substitute shelf was a quarter inch too long. So she went off to the women's restroom with her saw while Dr. Apgar stood guard. A passing nurse was very surprised to hear sawing noises coming from the women's restroom. Dr. Apgar stated firmly, "It's the only time repairmen can work in there." Apparently, the nurse was satisfied with that explanation, and the plan was a success. The removed shelf went on to a new life as the back of an Apgar viola, and the "phone booth caper" eventually made The New York Times. [1]

The four instruments now at Columbia were played by a string quartet, the "Apgar String Quartet," in October, 1994, when the stamp honoring Dr. Apgar was released at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting in Dallas. Texas. The quartet was made up of four pediatricians, Nick Cunningham, M.D. (cello), Mary Howell, M.D. ( mezzo violin ). Yeou-Cheng Ma, M.D. (first violin; she is cellist Yo-Yo Ma's sister) and Bob Levine, M.D. (viola). They played Dr. Apgar's favorite chamber music at two events: at a lunch to award the 20th annual Virginia Apgar Award in Perinatal Medicine aud at the stamp's unveiling ceremony.

Music was a vital part of Dr. Apgar's life, so music from her own instruments was an appropriate addition to the events. The instruments will hopefully enjoy a long life at their new home at Columbia and remind us of this vibrant,creative part of Dr. Apgar's life.



1. Sullivan W. Confessions of a musical shelf-robber. NY Times. Feb. 2. 1975. There are several versions of this story: this reference is Mrs. Hutchings' statement.