It is low-cost, effective and may have saved the lives of countless women since it was invented in 1943.
The ‘Pap smear’ — named after Greek doctor Georgios Papanikolaou who died this day in 1962 — has become a cornerstone of early cancer detection, allowing physicians to detect signs of cervical cancer and other illnesses at a treatable stage.
But the road to this important discovery was not an easy one, and Papanikolaou had to fight hard to establish himself and his work before it was accepted.
Papanikolaou was born in Kymi, Euboea 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 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.
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 emigres.
Forced to find any work going, 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 Papanikolaou developed a technique to take samples from the vaginal tract and examine them under a microscope. The cellular changes caused by cancer were clearly visible using his technique giving Papanikolaou “one of the greatest thrills I ever experienced during my scientific career”.
However, due to resistance from the scientific establishment of the day, it was not until a 1941 paper written with gynecologist Herbert Traut that Papanikolaou’s findings began to be more widely accepted. 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, Papanikolaou was similarly honored, appearing on the country’s banknotes for years before the adoption of the euro in 2002.
After five decades of research in New York, Papanikolaou decided to relocate to Miami in 1961. Papanikolaou was known 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 infection in Feb. 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.
Earlier this year 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.
2012 tribute to Papanikolaou (Greek with English subtitles)