Google Doodle Marks Pap Smear Greek Inventor Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou

Greek cytopathologist George Papanikolaou. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Christos Bonis)

Ranking behind only Alexander the Great on a list of the 100 Greatest Greeks in a survey by the Greek TV station SKAI, pioneer scientist Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, who created the Pap Smear that could detect cancers in women, is the Google Doodle May 13 image.

It marked the 136th anniversary of his birth in 1883 in Kymi, on the Greek island of Euboea, that is connected to the mainland, and to honor a man whose work has saved countless lives through early detection using his method of analyzing vaginal smears.

That methodology opened a field of medical study known as “cytopathology” which examines cells of the body to look for disease, one of the most important moments in scientific and world history.

Papanikolaou was only 15 when he started medical school in Greece and received his Ph.D  in 1910 from the University of Munich and in 1916 moved to the United States with his wife, Andromahi Mavrogeni.

They worked together at Cornell University as researchers in the department of anatomy and began carrying out work studying cancers of the female reproductive system. He first reported that uterine cancer cells could be detected in vaginal smears in 1928, but his work was not widely recognized until the 1940’s.

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.

With a special staining technique, Papanikolaou was able to study smears of vaginal cells under the microscope, a cheap and easy test used routinely now to screen women for cervical cancer.

He remains honored in Greece, where he had been on the old 10,000 drachma note before the country moved to the euro and was also on a 13-cent US Postal Service stamp in 1978.

Dr. Papanikolaou was born in 1883 in the village of Kymi, a coastal town on the island of Euboea, Greece. In his biographical sketch written by Colleen Owens (2008, February 25), George Nicholas Papanikolaou entered the University of Athens to study medicine to please his father, a physician. After graduating, Dr. Papanikolaou left for Jena, Germany, to begin post-graduate studies under Professor Ernst Haeckel, a leading researcher of evolution of development and morphogenesis, but quickly moved to Freiburg to work with August Weismann, an early philosopher and geneticist. Still dissatisfied after one semester of not finding his niche, Dr. Papanikolaou moved again, this time to Munich to work at the Zoological Institute, earning his PhD in Zoology in 1910. After military service, marriage, and a stint as a field scientist for Prince Albert of Monaco, Dr. Papanikolaou and his wife, Mary, moved to New York in 1913.

At age 31, he accepted a position as assistant in the department of anatomy at Cornell Medical School where he stayed for the remainder of his career. There, in collaboration with Dr. Herbert Traut from the department of obstetrics and gynecology, they published “The diagnostic value of vaginal smears in carcinoma of the uterus”, in 1941, and in 1943, “Diagnoses of uterine cancer by the vaginal smear.”

For his work and contributions in the field of medicine, Dr. Papanikolaou received numerous awards and accolades, among them, the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research in 1950. His portrait was on the front of the Greek 10,000-drachma note from 1995-2001. Once Greece became a member of the Eurozone (January 1, 2001), the drachma was replaced with the Euro. His portrait is on a 2012 commemorative 10-Euro coin.