Born in 1883 in Kyme, Greece Dr. George Papanicolaou attended school in Greece and at the age of 21 obtained the Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Athens. In an effort to further his studies, he went to Germany to study the philosophy of biologic sciences. After a brief period of studying with August Weisman, Papanicolaou went to Munich. There he earned his PhD degree in Zoolgy. He then returned to Greece where he met Andromachque Mavroyeni, later known as Mary Papanicolaou or Mrs. Pap. She became his lifelong companion and a great source of support for him.
Dr. and Mrs. Papanicolaou then went to France where Dr. Pap 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. Pap met United States volunteers who told him of the opportunities in the United States. Dr. Papanicolaou obtained a position as assistant in the Department of Anatomy at New York’s Cornell Medical School in 1913. His wife, Mary, also worked there as his technician.Dr. Papanicolaou worked at Cornell from 1913 until a few months before his death.
The work at Cornell was rich in discovery. It was at Cornell where Dr. Papanicolaou worked examining vaginal smears of guinea pigs to determine the existence of a menstrual cycle. Using a small ear speculum, Dr. Papanicolaou observed the changes in the female genital tract of a guinea pig and added much to the basic understanding of endocrinology of reproductive organs. 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 form the cervix.
It is well known that the acceptance of Dr. Papanicolaou’s initial understanding of the significance of these cells as a diagnostic modality was not readily made. In 1939, the reevaluation of the vaginal smear for cancer detection began. At the New York Hospital all women patients were required to take a routine vaginal smear. Dr. Herbert Traut from the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cornell, collaborated with Dr. Papanicolaou to validate the diagnostic potential of the vaginal smear. In 1943, they 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 authored over 150 publications, and throughout his life received many honors and awards. Dr. Papanicolaou 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.