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Georgios Papanikolaou

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Georgios Papanikolaou
Born13 May 1883
Died19 February 1962(1962-02-19) (aged 78)
Alma materUniversity of Athens
University of Munich
Known forCytopathology
Pap smear
(m. 1910)
AwardsLasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (1950)
Scientific career
FieldsZoology, Pathology, Biology, Microscopy
InstitutionsCornell University
New York Hospital

Georgios Nikolaou Papanikolaou (or George Papanicolaou /ˌpæpəˈnɪkəl/; Greek: Γεώργιος Ν. Παπανικολάου [papanikoˈlau]; 13 May 1883 – 19 February 1962) was a Greek physician, zoologist and microscopist who was a pioneer in cytopathology and early cancer detection, and inventor of the "Pap smear".

After studying medicine in Greece and Germany, he emigrated in 1913 to the United States and was faculty at Cornell Medical College. He first reported that uterine cancer cells could be detected in vaginal smears in 1928, but his work was not widely recognized until the 1940s. An extensive trial of his techniques was carried out in the early 1950s. In 1961, he was invited to the University of Miami to lead and develop the Papanicolaou Cancer Research Institute there.

Life and career[edit]

Papanikolaou's house in Kymi

Born in Kymi, Greece, Papanikolaou attended the University of Athens, where he studied literature, philosophy, languages and music. Urged by his father, he pursued a medical degree, which he received in 1904. Afterwards, he was conscripted into military service. When his obligation ended in 1906, he returned to Kymi to practice medicine with his father. In 1907, he began studying in Germany under Ernst Haeckel at the University of Jena for one semester before moving to University of Freiburg, where he was supervised by August Weismann. Again he left after one semester, this time to join University of Munich, from which he graduated with a PhD in zoology in 1910.[1][2] Afterwards, Papanikolaou returned to Athens and married Andromachi Mavrogeni, who later became his laboratory assistant and research subject.[3][4][5] He then departed for Monaco, where he worked for the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco, participating in the Oceanographic Exploration Team of Prince Albert I of Monaco (1911).[6] In 1913, along with his wife, he immigrated to New York in order to work in the department of Pathology of New York Hospital and the Department of Anatomy at the Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.[7]

Papanikolaou was also inspired by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,[8][9] writing papers on philosophical matters for an Athenian literary quarterly.[8] Nietzsche's philosophical thought was particularly crucial in shaping his character.[9]

The importance of his work was not recognized until the publication, together with Herbert F. Traut (1894–1963), of Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by the Vaginal Smear in 1943. The book discusses the preparation of vaginal and cervical smears, physiologic cytologic changes during the menstrual cycle, the effects of various pathological conditions, and the changes seen in the presence of cancer of the cervix and of the endometrium of the uterus. He thus became known for his invention of the Papanicolaou test, commonly known as the Pap smear or Pap test, which is used worldwide for the detection and prevention of cervical cancer and other cytologic diseases of the female reproductive system.

In 1961, he moved to Miami, Florida, to develop the Papanicolaou Cancer Research Institute[10][11][12] at the University of Miami, but died there on 19 February 1962[13][14] due to a myocardial infarction.[15] His wife Andromachi "Mary" Papanikolaou continued his work at the Papanicolaou Cancer Research Institute after his death, and died in Miami in October 1982.


Pap test abnormal.

In 1914, Papanikolaou and his wife worked at the Department of Anatomy at the Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and contributed to the histological and physiological changes associated with the oestrus cycle in the guinea pig.[16] In 1917, Papanikolaou along with Charles R. Stockard demonstrated that, in the guinea pig, the histologic cyclic changes that occur in the reproductive tract during the estrus cycle also occur in the vaginal mucosa and can be detected by cytologic examination of vaginal smears.[17] This technique (termed the Papanicolaou technique[17]) was groundbreaking and also facilitated the discovery of an ovarian hormone.[17]

Papanikolaou then began examining the human reproductive system. His wife Mary, was a crucial partner in this research. She was working in the same laboratory as an unpaid laboratory technician. Every day Mary provided a vaginal sample for the research. She also prepared her own samples in the laboratory for further analysis. She provided daily samples for twenty-one years, eventually encouraging her friends to also provide samples for the research.[18]

In 1920, Georgios Papanikolaou realized that he could tell the difference between normal and malignant cells on the cervix by viewing smears on a slide under a microscope.[16] In 1925, with funds from the National Research Council and the Maternal Health Committee, Papanikolaou recruited 12 hospital staff volunteers, together with a number of pregnant gynecological and surgical patients, for a systematic study of cervical cell morphology. The participants were regularly tested to determine normal hormonal changes and to diagnose early pregnancy.[19] Upon examination of a slide made from a smear of one of the participant's vaginal fluid, Papanikolaou discovered that abnormal cancer cells could be plainly observed under a microscope. "The first observation of cancer cells in the smear of the uterine cervix," he later wrote, "gave me one of the greatest thrills I ever experienced during my scientific career."[19]

In 1928, Papanikolaou told an incredulous audience of physicians about the noninvasive technique of gathering cellular debris from the lining of the vaginal tract and smearing it on a glass slide for microscopic examination as a way to identify cervical cancer. That year, he had undertaken a study of vaginal fluid in women, in hopes of observing cellular changes over the course of a menstrual cycle. In female guinea pigs, Papanicolaou had already noticed cell transformation and wanted to corroborate the phenomenon in human females. It happened that one of Papanikolaou's human subjects was suffering from uterine cancer.

At a 1928 medical conference in Battle Creek, Michigan, Papanikolaou introduced his low-cost, easily performed screening test for early detection of cancerous and precancerous cells. However, this potential medical breakthrough was initially met with skepticism and resistance from the medical community. Papanicolaou's next communication on the subject did not appear until 1941 when, with gynecologist Herbert Traut, he published a paper on the diagnostic value of vaginal smears in carcinoma of the uterus.[20] This was followed two years later by an illustrated monograph based on a study of over 3,000 cases. In 1954, he published another memorable work, the Atlas of Exfoliative Cytology, thus creating the foundation of the modern medical specialty of cytopathology.[21] The complete works of Papanicolaou as the founder of exfoliative cytology include 5 books and 158 original articles, all of which are summarised in his monographs.[9][22]


The Romanian physician Aurel Babeș made similar discoveries in the cytologic diagnosis of cervical cancer.[23] He discovered that if a platinum loop (rather than a cotton swab, as used by Papanikolaou and by modern doctors[16]) was used to collect cells from a woman's cervix, and the cells were then dried on a slide and stained, it could be determined if cancer cells were present. This was the first screening test to diagnose cervical and uterine cancer. Babeș presented his findings to the Romanian Society of Gynaecology in Bucharest on 23 January 1927. His method of cancer diagnosis was published in a French medical journal, La Presse Médicale, on 11 April 1928,[24] but Papanicolaou was not aware of Babeș's research.[25][26] On the other hand, Babes was aware of Papanikolaou's studies.[27] Moreover, the medical community has established that the two techniques are different in their design.[16] Babeș's technique of preparing, staining and examining vaginal smears was substantially different from Papanicolaou's and would never have lent itself to mass screening for cervical cancer without modification.[28]

Recent scientific papers have analyzed the ways that Babeș's method differed from Papanikolaou's and note that the paternity of the Pap test belongs solely to Papanicolaou.[29][30][31]

Although a few scholars believe that Babeș was the "true" pioneer in the cytologic diagnosis of cervical cancer,[23] Papanikolaou is still widely considered the pioneer in the field by mainstream scholarship.[25][32][33] In Romania, cervical testing is referred to as the Méthode Babeș-Papanicolaou in honor of both scientists.[34]

Awards and honors[edit]

Papanikolaou was nominated for a Nobel Prize 5 times but won none. This was probably due to the fact that the prize is rarely awarded for diagnostic tools, as well as due to the fact that a death of one of Papanicolaou's great admirers, who was a member of the Nobel Prize Committee, occurred around that time and also due to the committee's reluctance to award a Nobel Prize for another cancer discovery following a former embarrassing award in 1926 to Johannes Febiger, who claimed that worms caused cancer.[35] Nevertheless, Papanikolaou received many other prestigious prizes and awards for his discoveries,[16] such as the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research (the American equivalent to the Nobel Prize in Physiology[8]), which he received in 1950.[36] In total, he received hundreds of honorary awards.[37]

These include honorary awards by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Cancer Society.[9][21] In 1949, the Medical School of the University of Athens named Papanikolaou an honorary doctorate, while the Academy of Athens in November 1957 proclaimed him an honorary member. In 1962, he was also posthumously given an award by the United Nations, after being nominated by the World Health Organization.[9][21][38]


In 1958, "The Papanicolaou Award", the highest award given by the American Society of Cytopathology, was established in honor of Papanikolaou and awarded annually since.[39]

In 1978, Papanikolaou's work was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a 13-cent stamp for early cancer detection.[16]

Between 1995 and 2001, his portrait appeared on the obverse of the Greek 10,000 banknote, until its replacement by the euro.[40]

In 2011, A Man of Science, a statue portraying Papanicolaou was permanently installed in Weill Cornell Medical College's main lobby at 1300 York Avenue in New York City.

On 13 May 2019, the 136th anniversary of his birth, a Google Doodle featuring Papanikolaou was shown in North America, parts of South America, and parts of Europe and Israel.[41] He and his wife Andromachi's efforts in the fight against cervical cancer, along with that of Helen Octavia Dickens and Hashime Murayama, are featured in the documentary film The Cancer Detectives which first aired on American Experience on March 26, 2024.[42]


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  2. ^ Elgert, Paul A.; Gill, Gary W. (1 April 2009). "George N. Papanicolaou, MD, PhD: Cytopathology". Laboratory Medicine. 40 (4): 245–246. doi:10.1309/LMRRG5P22JMRRLCT. ISSN 0007-5027.
  3. ^ Vilos, George A. (March 1998). "The history of the Papanicolaou smear and the odyssey of George and Andromache Papanicolaou". Obstetrics and Gynecology. 91 (3): 479–483. doi:10.1016/s0029-7844(97)00695-9. ISSN 0029-7844. PMID 9491881.
  4. ^ Nikolaos Chatziantoniou (November–December 2014). "Lady Andromache (Mary) Papanicolaou: The Soul of Gynecological Cytopathology". Journal of the American Society of Cytopathology. 3 (6): 319–326. doi:10.1016/j.jasc.2014.08.004. PMID 31051722. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
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  11. ^ "Director's report". Worldcat.org. Archived from the original on 21 May 2018. Retrieved 13 May 2019.
  12. ^ "Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center". umiamihealth.org.
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  17. ^ a b c Josimovich, J. B. (11 November 2013). Gynecologic Endocrinology. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-4613-2157-6.
  18. ^ "Every day for 21 years, Mary got a vaginal test. Her 'generosity' helped save 'millions of lives'". ABC News. 7 July 2023.
  19. ^ a b Fabbri, Christiane Nockels (2016). From Anesthesia to X-Rays: Innovations and Discoveries That Changed Medicine Forever: Innovations That Changed Medicine Forever. ABC-CLIO. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-61069-574-9.
  20. ^ Papanicolaou GN, Traut HF. "The diagnostic value of vaginal smears in carcinoma of the uterus". American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 1941; 42:193.
  21. ^ a b c Chandrasekhar, Vijayalakshmi; Krishnamurti, Chandrasekhar (2018). "George Papanicolaou (1883–1962): Discoverer of the Pap Smear". The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology of India. 68 (3): 232–235. doi:10.1007/s13224-018-1102-z. ISSN 0971-9202. PMC 5972093. PMID 29896006.
  22. ^ Diamantis, Aristidis; Magiorkinis, Emmanouil; Koutselini, Helen (2014). "50 Years After The Death Of George Nicholas Papanicolaou (1883-1962): Evaluation Of His Scientific Work". Acta medico-historica Adriatica. 12 (1): 181–188. ISSN 1334-6253. PMID 25310617.
  23. ^ a b O'Dowd Michael J., Philipp Elliot E. The History of Obstetrics & Gynaecology. London: Parthenon Publishing Group; 1994: 547
  24. ^ Babeș, Aurel (1928). "Diagnostic du cancer du col utérin par les frottis". La Presse Médicale. 29: 451–454.
  25. ^ a b Spriggs, A I (1 December 1977). "History of cytodiagnosis". Journal of Clinical Pathology. 30 (12): 1091–1102. doi:10.1136/jcp.30.12.1091. ISSN 0021-9746. PMC 476689. PMID 604355.
  26. ^ Koss, Leopold G. (1989). "The Papanicolaou Test for Cervical Cancer Detection: A Triumph and a Tragedy". Journal of the American Medical Association. 261 (5): 737–743. doi:10.1001/jama.1989.03420050087046. ISSN 0098-7484. PMID 2642983.
  27. ^ Meisels, Alexander; Morin, Carol (1997). Cytopathology of the Uterus. ASCP Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-89189-383-7.
  28. ^ Ramzy, Ibrahim; Herbert, Amanda (1 January 2010), Gray, Winifred; Kocjan, Gabrijela (eds.), "CHAPTER 1 - Cytopathology: the history, the present and the future direction", Diagnostic Cytopathology (Third Edition), Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, pp. 3–13, doi:10.1016/b978-0-7020-3154-0.00001-6, ISBN 978-0-7020-3154-0, retrieved 1 January 2023
  29. ^ Diamantis, Aristidis; Magiorkinis, Emmanouil; Androutsos, George (2009). "What's in a name? Evidence that Papanicolaou, not Babes, deserves credit for the PAP test". Diagnostic Cytopathology. 38 (7): 473–476. doi:10.1002/dc.21226. PMID 19813255. S2CID 37757448.
  30. ^ Diamantis, Aristidis; Magiorkinis, Emmanouil; Androutsos, George (2010). "Different strokes: Pap-test and Babes method are not one and the same". Diagnostic Cytopathology. 38 (11): 857–859. doi:10.1002/dc.21347. ISSN 1097-0339. PMID 20973044. S2CID 823546.
  31. ^ Zheng, Wenxin; Fadare, Oluwole; Quick, Charles Matthew; Shen, Danhua; Guo, Donghui (2019). "History of Pap Test". Gynecologic and Obstetric Pathology, Volume 2. Springer. p. 572. ISBN 978-981-13-3019-3. The method by Babes was radically different from that by Papanicolaou. Dr. Papanicolaou should receive the credit for the use of exfoliative cytology, the wet fixation, the staining technique, the systematic classification of cells with intermediate stages between the normal and the cancerous cell, and the envisioning that the method could be applied to large numbers of women in the cancer-bearing period of life to detect cervical cancer in its early stages, i.e., the "Pap test" as is commonly employed.
  32. ^ Virtej, P.; Vasiliu, C. (2003). "Cytodiagnosis in cervical neoplasia: from the Babes/Papanicolaou smear to the actual Bethesda System". Clinical and Experimental Obstetrics & Gynecology. 30 (4): 173–177. ISSN 0390-6663. PMID 14664403.
  33. ^ Gardner, Kirsten E. (2006). Early Detection: Women, Cancer, and Awareness Campaigns in the Twentieth-Century United States. University of North Carolina Press. p. 242. ISBN 978-0-8078-7712-8.
  34. ^ Naylor, Bernard; Tasca, Luminița; Bartziota, Evangelina; Schneider, Volker (2001). "Cytopathology History: In Romania it's the Méthode Babeș-Papanicolaou". Acta Cytologica. 46 (1): 1–12. doi:10.1159/000326708. PMID 11843552. S2CID 5580222. Retrieved 13 May 2019.
  35. ^ Koprowska, Irena (1985). "Concurrent discoveries of the value of vaginal smears for diagnosis of uterine cancer". Diagnostic Cytopathology. 1 (3): 245–248. doi:10.1002/dc.2840010315. PMID 3915249. S2CID 479692.
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  37. ^ "Awards". Dr. Pap. Retrieved 1 January 2023.
  38. ^ Alexakis, Vassilis (1999). Greeks Around the World. Apopsē Cultural Centre. p. 55. ISBN 978-960-85139-3-8.
  39. ^ Papanicolaou Award
  40. ^ Bank of Greece Archived 28 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Drachma Banknotes & Coins: 10,000 drachmas Archived 5 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine – Retrieved on 27 March 2009.
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  42. ^ Robinson, Jennifer. "American Experience: The Cancer Detectives," KPBS.org, Tuesday, February 27, 2024. Retrieved March 26, 2024.

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