Most people have heard of the Pap test and its great diagnostic value for detecting cervical cancer, the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide. Perhaps fewer know that the test was named after its inventor — George Papanicolaou. He developed the diagnostic method in the late 1920s while working as a scientist at New York University’s Pathology Department and Cornell University Medical College’s Anatomy Department. Papanicolaou spent the next decade improving the method and in 1943 published a landmark book, Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by the Vaginal Smear, together with his collaborator, Herbert Traut, a gynecological pathologist at Cornell.
Papanicolaou’s personal story was one that followed not a straight path but rather many winding roads. Born in Greece in 1883, he studied music and humanities at the University of Athens before he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in medicine. During his early years as a physician, he cared for leprosy patients on the outskirts of his hometown, Kimi. Yearning for a more scientific career, he later pursued a PhD in zoology at the University of Munich in Germany. Eventually he returned to Greece, but shortly after his return, in 1912, the Balkan War began, and in 1913 Papanicolaou immigrated to the United States. After a short stint selling rugs at a department store, he obtained his position at New York University’s Pathology Department and Cornell University Medical College’s Anatomy Department.
In 1950, Papanicolaou received the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award for his contributions to cancer research.