Georgios Papanikolaou (or George Papanicolaou) was a Greek pioneer in cytopathology and early cancer detection, and inventor of the “Pap smear” (Pap test).
Dr. George Papanicolaou was born in 1883 in Kyme, Greece. He attended school in Greece and he obtained the Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Athens.
He then moved to Germany where he studied the philosophy of biologic sciences and earned his Ph.D. degree in Zoology. After completing his Ph.D. he left Germany to return to Greece where he met his wife Andromache Mavroyeni, later known as Mary Papanicolaou or Mrs. Pap. Mary became Dr. Papanicolaou’s lifelong companion and a great source of support and inspiration for him.
Dr. and Mrs. Papanicolaou then went to France where Dr. Papanicolaou worked as a physiologist. From there, just before the outbreak of the Balkan War, the couple returned to Greece. While serving in the Greek Army, Dr. Papanicolaou met United States volunteers who told him of the opportunities in the United States. Dr. Papanicolaou obtained a position as an assistant in the Department of Anatomy at New York’s Cornell Medical School in 1913 and worked at Cornell from 1913 until a few months before his death.
The work at Cornell was rich in discovery and it was at Cornell where Dr. Papanicolaou worked examining vaginal smears of guinea pigs to determine the existence of a menstrual cycle. Eventually, Dr. Papanicolaou became interested in the menstrual cycle of women. In 1933 he published a monograph “The Sexual Cycle of the Human Female as Revealed by the Vaginal Smear”. It was doing this work that he noticed cancer cells coming from the cervix.
In 1939, the reevaluation of the vaginal smear for cancer detection began at the New York Hospital and in 1943,Dr. Herbert Traut and Dr. Papanicolaou published their findings and conclusions in the famous monograph, “Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by the Vaginal Smear.” This diagnostic procedure was named the Pap test. In 1954, Dr. Papanicolaou’s comprehensive scientific treatise was published. It was entitled, “Atlas of Exfoliative Cytology,” which contained a compendium of cytological findings in health and disease involving multiple organ systems of the human body.
Dr. Papanicolaou was the author of over 150 publications, and throughout his life received many honors and awards. He died on February 18, 1962, of heart failure and pulmonary edema and is buried in New Jersey.
Millions of women have received the Pap test and deaths from cancer of uterus has been greatly reduced because of the test. It was predominantly through Dr. Papanicolaou’s efforts that cytology became accepted as a basis for diagnosis.