Welcome to America Comes Alive!, a site I created to share little-known stories of America's past. These stories are about Americans - people just like you - who have made a difference and changed the course of history. Look around the site and find what inspires you. Kate Kelly

Mothers of Invention, May 2012

Virginia Apgar, Inventor of the Scoring System for Newborns

Dr. Virginia Apgar (1909-1974) created the first standardized evaluation system to use on newborns. By creating a scoring system to evaluate and report on five crucial aspects of a newborn baby’s health, Apgar designed a way for medical professionals to identify which babies needed immediate medical attention—crucial in saving lives.

Apgar entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University just before the Wall Street crash of October 1929. She had to take loans in order to finish school but graduated on time in 1933, fourth in her class. She hoped for an internship in surgery but her male counterparts were having difficulty getting surgical jobs, and Apgar needed work. The chair of the surgery department pointed her toward anesthesia, an area that was managed mostly by nurses but was beginning to professionalize.

Apgar moved into the field but pay was low and change was slow. Her work in this area, however, acquainted her with the issues of newborn health. During the late 1930s, women always received anesthesia during childbirth, and during labor and delivery the physician’s primary focus was on the mother.

Apgar noted the lack of attention to the newborn and saw that some were in distress after delivery. One thing that seemed to make a difference was the type of anesthesia administered; some types left the newborn less prepared for breathing on his or her own. Apgar noted other issues as well, and she created a scoring system that involved evaluating five aspects of the baby’s health—heart rate, respiratory effort, muscle tone, reflex response, and color.

Apgar found that the best use of the scoring was to perform it twice…once one minute after birth and again four minutes after that. (Later, a ten-minute check was added as well.) Apgar’s method was presented at a scientific meeting in 1952 and published in 1953. The scoring system was met with initial skepticism, but was soon embraced and is now used throughout the world; it is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of infant lives.

On sabbatical in 1959, Apgar earned a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins and dedicated the rest of her career working to prevent birth defects. She became the director of the division of congenital defects at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes).
In 1964-65, a rubella pandemic swept the country, and Apgar became a major advocate for universal vaccination to prevent mother-to-child transmission of rubella, which can cause serious congenital disorders if women become infected while pregnant.

Dr. Apgar received many honors and rewards for her work, but the fact that her scoring system for newborns is still used to improve birth outcomes would probably be what she would identify as her highest honor.

Cataract Surgery Pioneered by Dr. Patricia Bath
Today countless people’s lives have been changed by the woman who invented a method for using a laser that made cataract removal much easier and safer than methods of the past.

Before 1985 the method for removing a cataract (an opaque covering that sometimes develops over aging eyes) involved hospitalization; the surgeon needed to make a big enough incision to remove the cataract and replace it with a man-made lens, and at this time the incision required stitches which made the process lengthy, painful, and because of hospitalization, expensive.

Patricia Bath (1942- ) was born and raised in Harlem and showed early facility with the sciences, gaining science internships as early as high school. She went on to attend medical school, eventually becoming the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology.

During her residency she split time between Harlem Hospital and Columbia Eye Clinic and began to see that there was great disparity between African-Americans and the white population when it came to vision difficulties. Bath believed that the main explanation for this disparity was the lack of access to ophthalmic care for the underprivileged.
Bath began to promote the concept of outreach programs. She implored other Columbia professors to donate time at the Harlem Hospital’s Eye clinic to provide vision, cataract and glaucoma screening. By 1976 she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness based on the principle that “eyesight is a basic human right.”

One of the problems that continued to vex her was the fact that cataracts robbed people of clarity of vision but surgery was still not terribly safe and was priced above what most people could afford. In 1981 she began investigating what could be done with lasers. She eventually created what is now called the “Laserphaco Probe.” Using a laser for pinpoint surgical accuracy, Bath added two tubes—one for irrigation of the eye and another for aspiration (suction). The surgeon could make a small incision with the laser and then the laser energy would quickly vaporize the cataract. A new lens could be inserted moments later. Because the incision was smaller and the process simpler, the procedure can be done an outpatient basis and has become more affordable as a result.

Bath continued to work on improvements to the Laserphaco Probe and holds three patents on it; in 2000 she was granted a patent for a device to remove cataracts using ultrasound. The proceeds from her patents have largely gone to benefit the AIPB.

Scotchgard Inventor: Chemist Patsy O. Sherman (1930-2008)

Patsy Sherman was hired by 3M in 1952 as a research chemist at a time when few women had penetrated the product development departments in major corporations. She and her colleague, Sam Smith, were assigned to develop a new kind of rubber for jet aircraft fuel lines. However, an accident was to change the focus of the chemists’ work. Because they recognized the possibilities offered by the accident, they eventually developed a product that added millions of dollars per year to the corporate coffers.

Sherman created a synthetic latex they were working with when an assistant accidentally dropped a small bottle of the product and it splashed on his sneakers. The scientists were fascinated to note that the substance did not change the appearance of the white sneakers, but when they tried to clean it off, they couldn’t remove it.

Sherman and Smith realized they had stumbled upon an important discovery that could become a successful commercial application for the fluorochemical polymers with which they were working. Their first iteration of the product was for use on wool only, but they soon saw that it could be helpful with other clothing and household linens. By 1956 they were satisfied with their fabric stain repellent and material protector and trademarked it as Scotchgard. A dozen years later, Scotchgard had been further improved to not only repel stains but also permit removal of oily soils from synthetic fabrics; it was soon being used for carpet treatments and in automotive upholstery.

Was Sherman’s gender an issue in the workplace? Indeed it was. Performance results on various fabrics were key to the team’s success, and while Sam Smith was permitted to go into the textile mills and observe the product testing as it took place, Sherman was barred from access because women were not allowed in the factories.

Despite this, Patsy Sherman was always very encouraging of other inventors. She stressed the importance of an “inventor’s eye,” saying that things needn’t go “right” to be important. As with Scotchgard, great things can grow from simple accidents.

Fast Fact About Women Inventors

And a Few Wacky Inventions (by both men and women inventors):

Clocky: An alarm clock that runs away and hides if you don’t get out of bed on time. When the alarm sounds you can hit snooze one time. If you still don’t wake up, Clocky will jump off of the bedside table, and wheel away, mindlessly bumping into objects until he finds a spot to rest. You’ll have to get up and out of bed to silence his alarm. Clocky finds a new resting place each day.

Pawsense,  Cat Detector Software for Keyboards:  Cats wandering across keyboards can enter commands that damage data.  Pawsense is a software utility that helps protect your computer from cats. It quickly detects and blocks cat typing.

Duster Slippers: Who wouldn’t want these?  Or if not for you, how about for that cat who keeps walking on your keyboard?