In his masterful book Better, surgeon Atul Gawande writes that in the 1950s, newborn babies in the United States faced great danger: "One in thirty still died at birth—odds that were scarcely better than they were a century before—and it wasn't clear how that could be changed."

An anesthesiologist named Virginia Apgar was appalled: "Babies who were malformed or too small or just blue and not breathing well were listed as stillborn, placed out of sight, and left to die." Apgar believed these infants could be saved, "but she had no authority to challenge the conventions. She was not an obstetrician, and she was a female in a male world. So she took a less direct but ultimately more powerful approach: she devised a score."

Apgar gave nurses a way to rate the health of babies at delivery: "Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby."

This simple score, devised by an unlikely person—she ...

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