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This Week in History: February 19th to 25th

February 19, 2021

February 19th:

On this day in 1962, Georgios Papanikolaou, the Greek doctor and inventor of the revolutionary Pap Test, passed away at the age of 78. Born in Kymi, a small town on the island of Evia, Papanikolaou was the son of a doctor. He moved to Athens, where he studied medicine, and in 1913, he was persuaded to move to the United States where he spent the rest of his life working on scientific research in the medical school of Cornell University (47 years!). Papanikolaou introduced his screening method for the discovery of cancerous cells as early as 1927 but his findings were met with skepticism by the scientific community. It was not until 1941, when, with gynecologist Herbert Traught, he published a paper on the diagnostic value of vaginal smears, that he gained wide recognition by the medical community. Leading to other early detection medical breakthroughs. Since then, the Pap smear has been the standard method for early detection of cervical cancer that has saved millions of women’s lives. Papanikolaou’s figure was featured on Greece’s largest denomination drachma banknote of 10,000 and is rightly regarded as one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the 20th century.

Also on this day in 1880, Constantino Brumidi, the Greek-Italian historical artist, passed away at the age of 74. Brumidi trained in drawing, painting, and sculpture at Rome’s prestigious Accademia di San Luca. By 1840, his artistic skills were put to good use when Brumidi and several other artists were commissioned to restore the historic Renaissance frescoes in the Vatican Palace. Brumidi also earned important commissions to decorate several palaces and churches in Rome. Following a pardon by Pope Pius IX for his role in Italy’s republican uprisings, Brumidi immigrated to the United States in 1852. Five years later he became a naturalized citizen. Of particular importance, especially this year, in 1855, Brumidi was hired to decorate the extension of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. with murals and frescoes. His Capitol frescoes were likely the first true frescoes to be painted in this country. For the next 25 years, Brumidi continued to embellish the walls of the Capitol. Proud of his achievements in America, Brumidi is reported to have remarked, “my one ambition and my daily prayer is that I may live long enough to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on Earth in which there is liberty.”

Finally, on this day in 1978, Egyptian special forces raided the Larnaca International Airport in Cyprus in an attempt to intervene in a hijacking. Earlier, two assassins had killed prominent Egyptian newspaper editor Yusuf Sibai at the Nicosia Hilton and then rounded up several Arabs as hostages who were attending a convention in the city. The assassins demanded transportation to Larnaca airport and a Cyprus Airways aircraft to flee the country with 11 hostages and four crew members. As Cypriot forces were trying to negotiate with the hostage-takers at the airport, Egyptian troops launched their own assault without authorization from the Cypriots. The unauthorized raid led to the Egyptians and the Cypriots exchanging gunfire, killing or injuring more than 20 of the Egyptian commandos. As a result, Egypt and Cyprus severed political ties for several years after the incident. The aircraft with the hostages, which had taken off, was denied permission to land in Djibouti, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and was forced to return and land in Cyprus a few hours later.

February 23rd:

On this day in 1980, an oil tanker exploded off of the coast of Pylos in mainland Greece and caused a 37-million-gallon spillage – one of the biggest maritime accidents that ever occurred in Greece. The ship, named the Irenes Serenade, was loaded with cargo of over 100,000 tons of Iraqi crude oil and was en route from Syria to Trieste when it stopped to refuel in Navarino Bay. The vessel suffered explosions while it was at the bunkering location and thus, the cargo was set alight. An oil slick two miles long by half a mile-wide spread from the vessel and both the tanker and the surrounding area burned for 14 hours until the following morning, when the tanker sank off Pylos Harbor. Defying the danger, a local fisherman, Velissarios Karavias, who saw the explosion from the harbor, approached the tanker with his boat to save the lives of the seamen. All but two of the crew members were rescued.

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