George Papanicolaou Biography (1883-1962)
- physician, anatomist
George Papanicolaou was a physician and researcher who was associated with the Cornell University school of medicine for forty-eight years. While studyingmicroscopic slides of cells that had been cast off (exfoliated) in body fluids of laboratory animals and humans, he recognized the presence of abnormal cancer cells. The discovery led to the famous test that bears the first syllable of his last name, the Pap test. He is recognized by his colleagues as thefather of modern cytology.
George Nicholas Papanicolaou was born on May 13, 1883, in Coumi, Greece, to Nicholas (a physician) and Mary Critsutas Papanicolaou. He received an M.D. degree from the University of Athens in 1904 and a Ph.D. from the University ofMunich in 1910. He married Mary A. Mavroyeni on September 15, 1910. His first position was as a physiologist for an expedition of the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco for one year. In 1912, during the Balkan War, he became an officer in the Greek army medical corps. He came to the United States in 1913, working initially as a salesman, but soon securing work in his field as an anatomy assistant at Cornell University, where he eventually became a full professor in 1924. He also served on the pathology staff of New York Hospital from1913. Papanicolaou became a United States citizen in 1927.
In the pathology lab at Cornell, Papanicolaou began working with microscope slides of vaginal secretions of guinea pigs. He found that changes in forms ofthe epithelial cells (the outer layer of the skin or of an organ) correspondwith the animal's estrus or menstrual cycle. Using the changes as a measuring device, he was able to study sex hormones and the menstrual cycles of otherlaboratory animals.
In 1923 Papanicolaou studied vaginal smears of women who had cervical cancerand found cancer cells present. Writing in the medical journal Growthin 1920, he outlined his theory that a microscopic smear of vaginal fluid could detect the presence of cancer cells in the uterus. At this time physicians relied on biopsy and curettage to diagnose and treat cancer and ignored thepossibilities of a new test based on Papanicolaou's research.
Papanicolaou himself paid little attention to his research in this area for the next decade. At the encouragement of a colleague, Dr. Herbert F. Traut, and with the support of Dean Joseph C. Hinsey of Cornell medical college, he later continued his work in this field and was allowed to devote full time to his research. In 1943 he published conclusive findings that showed smears of vaginal fluid could indicate cervical and uterine cancer before symptoms appear. This time the medical community took notice, and the "new cancer diagnosis," the Pap smear test, won acceptance and became a routine screening technique.
During a Pap test, a scraping or smear is taken from the woman's cervix (themouth of the uterus) or from the vagina, then is stained and examined under the microscope, where cells may appear normal, cancerous, or suspicious. It isa simple, painless, and effective means of early cancer detection.
Papanicolaou soon won international acclaim for his discovery. The American Cancer Society (ACS) launched massive education campaigns for the test, and Dr. Charles Cameron, a Philadelphia surgeon (who was director of the ACS), saidthat this test was the most significant and practical discovery in our time.Papanicolaou spent much of his time promoting the test and trained thousandsof students in the microscopic detection techniques. Once the test had beenaccepted, he began to apply the same principle of exfoliate cytology to cancers of the lung, stomach, and bladder.
At Cornell Papanicolaou founded the Papanicolaou Research Center and worked six and a half days a week peering at slides and looking for malignant cells.He seldom took a vacation. When associates advised him to rest, he stated that the work was so interesting and that there was so much to be done. His wifeworked as his research assistant and driver.
Papanicolaou was a member of many societies and won twelve prestigious awardsincluding the Borden award of the Association of Medical Colleges in 1940, the Lasker award of the Public Health Association in 1950, and the honor medalfrom the American Cancer Society in 1952. The king of Greece gave him the medal of the Cross of the Grand Commander award, and his native town of Coumi renamed their town square in his honor. He was the author of four books and over one hundred articles.
At the age of seventy-eight, Papanicolaou ended his forty-eight year association with Cornell and took over the Papanicolaou Cancer Institute in Miami. Hemaintained a busy schedule and was planning for the further expansion of theinstitute when he suffered a heart attack and died on February 19, 1962. Hewas buried in Clinton, New Jersey.
In 1983, the hundredth anniversary of Papanicolaou's birth, several articlesappeared in scientific journals honoring him and his persistent spirit of scientific discovery. In December, 1992, the Journal of the Florida MedicalAssociation issued a thirty year commemorative of his death, which states that because of his persistence, there has been a seventy-percent decreasein cervical and uterine cancer. His techniques are also being applied to other organs and systems in the use of fine needle aspiration.