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Greek Doctor George Papanicolaou Saved Countless Lives with Pap Smear

Georgios Papanikolaou pap smear
George Papanicolaou, the inventor of Pap smear. Credit: The Pap Corps

George Papanicolaou, the Greek doctor who invented the Pap smear in 1928 and saved the lives of countless women, was born on this day in 1883.

The Pap smear has become a cornerstone of early cancer detection, allowing physicians to detect signs of cervical cancer, the second most common cancer in women, and other illnesses at a treatable stage.

Routine Pap testing has prevented the suffering and death of millions of women worldwide.

Doctors generally recommend that women aged 21 to 65 receive a Pap smear every three years or more frequently if they receive an irregular result.

But the road to this important discovery was not an easy one, and Papanicolaou had to fight hard to establish himself and his work before it was accepted.

Papanicolaou was born in Kymi, Evia in 1883, the son of a doctor, but began his academic career in Athens studying music and the humanities rather than medicine.

Under his father’s influence, he moved into medicine, first as an army surgeon and then by treating people suffering for leprosy near his home town.

His inquiring mind drove him further into the sciences,, and in 1910 he graduated with a PhD in Zoology from the University of Munich.

Emigration to the US

After getting married and serving in the military medical corps again in the First Balkan War, Papanikolaou emigrated to the U.S. in 1913, setting out on the hard road previously trodden by many Greek immigrants.

Forced to rely on any work available in order to support himself, he labored as a salesman, a clerk, and even a violin player in a Greek restaurant before finally establishing himself at New York University’s Pathology Department and Cornell University Medical College’s Anatomy Department.

It was in 1928 that Papanicolaou developed a technique to take samples from the cervix and examine them under a microscope, a technique which is now known as the
Pap smear or Pap test.

Greek doctor Papanicolaou invents the Pap smear

The cellular changes caused by cancer were clearly visible using his technique, giving Papanicolaou “one of the greatest thrills [he had] ever experienced during [his] scientific career.”

However, due to resistance from the scientific establishment of the day, it was not until a 1943 paper written with gynecologist Herbert Traut was published that Papanicolaou’s findings gained wider acceptance.

His work later developed into the fully-fledged discipline of cytopathology which studies disease at a cellular level.

He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research from the American Public Health Association in 1950 and the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society in 1952.

In his native Greece, Papanicolaou was similarly honored, appearing on the country’s banknotes for years before the adoption of the euro in 2002.

Research in Miami

After five decades of research in New York, Papanicolaou decided to relocate to Miami in 1961.

Papanicolaou was known as a serious and dedicated researcher who lived modestly, rarely took vacations, and regularly worked seven-day weeks.

He was only in Miami for three months before he died of an myocardial infarction on February 19, 1962.

The Papanicolaou Cancer Research Institute in Miami exists to this day as a tribute to his work.

Since then, other pioneering Greek scientists have made breakthroughs in cancer detection. In 2018, American researchers led by Greek scientist Prof. Nickolas Papadopoulos developed a single blood test which screens for eight common cancer types and helps identify the location of the disease.

The test, called CancerSEEK, simultaneously evaluates levels of eight cancer proteins and the presence of cancer gene mutations from circulating DNA in the blood.

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