Monday’s Google Doodle celebrates the 136th birthday of pathologist Georgios Papanikolaou, who developed the cancer screening test we know today as a Pap smear.
Moving to the U.S. in 1913 must have been a drastic change for Papanikolaou and his wife Andromachi at first. Only two years out of medical school in Greece, he’d just returned to dry land after a stint with the Oceanographic Exploration Team of the Prince of Monaco, which he joined in 1911, shortly after finishing his PhD and marrying Andromachi. And after all that, Papanikolaou found himself in New York City with a medical degree and a doctorate, selling carpets and playing the violin in restaurants to get by while his wife sewed buttons for $5 a week. After a few months, however, Papanikolaou found a job as a researcher in the pathology department at New York Hospital and the department of anatomy at Cornell University, and Andromachi joined him as a technician and, sometimes, as a test subject.
Around 1925, Papanikolaou was studying how cells in the vagina and uterus changed throughout the menstrual cycle. Some cells changed during menstruation in the guinea pigs in Papanikolaou’s lab at Cornell, and he wanted to know if the same thing happened in humans, so he recruited his wife and several female friends to be, well, guinea pigs. He collected his cell samples by scraping some cells from the outer opening of the cervix (the opening between the vagina and the uterus), then smearing the cells onto a glass slide and studying them under a microscope.
As it happened, one of Andromachi Papanikolaou’s friends had uterine cancer, and the malignant, mutated cells stood out like sore thumbs amongst the healthy cells on the slide. Papanikolaou realized that he’d discovered something important, and in 1928 he presented his findings to a medical conference in Michigan. He wasn’t the first to notice, though. In 1927, a doctor in Romania, Aurel Babes, demonstrated a similar technique to his peers. Since Papanikolaou actually used his method first, in 1925, he generally gets the credit today. Modern Pap smears are also based on Papanikolaou’s technique for getting cell samples and putting them on a slide, rather than Babes’.
But in the late 1920s, most of the medical community remained skeptical and dismissive. For support, Papanikolaou cited a tidbit he’d spotted in a text on lung diseases written in 1843 (40 years before he was born), whose author also noticed that cancer cells were easy to spot under the microscope. It took until 1943 for the medical community to recognize the importance of what Papanikolaou had found.
Papanikolaou died in 1962, but his work continues to save lives. Because it’s a quick, inexpensive, and effective way to screen patients for early signs of uterine and cervical cancer, the Pap smear is still one of the most important tools in the modern fight against cancer.