Origins of the Pap smear

When Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou brought his wife to America in 1913 he had $250 in his pocket. Both had to take menial jobs, she as a seamstress, he as a rug salesman, violin player in a restaurant, and clerk at a Greek newspaper. A year later, he obtained a position as laboratory technician at Cornell University.

Dr. Papanikolaou was born in 1886 on the large island alongside the Greek mainland that Greeks call Evia and readers of Herodotus and Thucydides would recognize as Euboea. He studied medicine in Athens and later earned a PhD at the University of Munich. In his work at Cornell he used the aniline stains that Paul Ehrlich had popularized a few decades earlier to distinguish different kinds of cells and their contents. He observed that malignant cells stained differently than healthy ones, an observation first made by the British physician Walter Hayle Walshe a century earlier and by the Romanian Aurel Babeş in 1927. He was gracious enough to recognize in his writings these earlier contributions, but all accolades went to him when he devised a test to screen women for cancer of the cervix. Since his time, millions of women have undergone the Pap smear and its originator has received honor after honor. After fifty years at Cornell he retired and moved to Miami to establish a cancer institute, but died of a myocardial infarct one year later in 1962.

He has been featured on stamps and banknotes, and a statue of him can be seen in Chalkida (Chalcis), the chief town on Euboea.

Georgios Papanikolaou, Chalkida by Dimitris Kamaras. 2015. CC BY 2.0.



Highlighted Vignette Volume 12, Issue 4 – Fall 2020

Fall 2019  |  Sections  |  History Essays