Have you visited Google today? If so, you probably noticed the illustration of a scientist observing cells under a microscope. This man is Georgios Papanikolaou, inventor of the pap smear and a medical pioneer who was born on this day 136 years ago.
Papanikolaou began his studies in medical school when he was just 15.
After studying in his native Greece and receiving his PhD from the University of Munich in Germany, the young scientist and his wife immigrated the United States, where they found jobs in the department of anatomy at Cornell University.
During his time at Cornell, Papanikolaou undertook a study of the female reproductive system, taking noninvasive samples of cells from the lining his test subjects’ vaginal tracts and smearing them on microscope slides to examine changes that occur during the menstrual cycle. To his surprise, Papanikolaou found that abnormal cancer cells of the cervix and endometrium could be clearly observed on these slides as well. Later, he wrote that this unexpected realization “gave me one of the greatest thrills I ever experienced during my scientific career.”
Although Papanikolaou made his initial discovery in 1928, his method of detecting early signs of cervical cancer was not widely accepted by the medical community until the 1940s. Today, the pap smear remains one of the most common and effective cancer-detection tools in the world. By some estimates, pap testing has cut the fatality rate of cervical cancer in half over the course of the past 30 years.
On the anniversary of his birth, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the remarkable contribution Georgios Papanikolaou has made to improve the health and well-being of women around the world. You can also learn more about pap smear testing here on our website.