Georgios Papanikolaou: Google Doodle celebrates Greek doctor who invented smear test

Medical pioneer would have celebrated his 136th birthday today

Tom Parfitt
Monday 13 May 2019 19:50 BST
NHS releases first national cervical cancer smear test advert

Today’s Google Doodle pays tribute to the Greek medical pioneer Georgios Papanikolaou, who invented the smear test to detect early signs of cervical and uterine cancer.

Mr Papanikolaou was born in the Greek costal town of Kymi on this day in 1883. The second son of a mayor and a doctor, he showed early interests in both music and the humanities before enrolling in a medical course at the University of Athens aged just 15.

After completing his undergraduate degree in 1904 he spent time working as an assistant surgeon in the Greek military, before moving to Munich to undertake a PhD in biology and zoology.

It was here that he developed his passion for research, working alongside the acclaimed naturalist Ernst Haeckel, who helped to popularise Darwinism in Germany.

Mr Papanikolaou returned to Greece’s medical corps in 1912 following the outbreak of the First Balkan War, but emigrated to the United States in the following year with his wife, Mary Mavroyeni.

After a string of low-paid jobs in New York, including as a carpet seller, violin player and clerk at a newspaper, he eventually found work as a medical researcher at New York University and Cornell University.

He began his research into cervical cancer while at Cornell and later invented the Papanicolaou smear test – now better known as the Pap smear – to screen women for early signs of the disease.

His landmark book Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by the Vaginal Smear, co written with Dr Herbert Traut and published in 1943, helped to detail his findings.

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The smear test is now widely used across the world and can prevent 75 per cent of cervical cancer cases. In 1988 the NHS launched its cervical screening programme, which has saved an estimated 5,000 lives a year, according to Public Health England.

Mr Papanikolaou died in 1962, aged 78, after suffering a heart attack. At the time of his death he had planned to develop a cancer research institute at the University of Miami.

He was named the second greatest Greek of all time in a poll conducted by Skai TV in 2009, after earning more than 100,000 votes. He was beaten only by Alexander the Great, the ancient king of Macedonia and military commander.

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