The Woman Behind the PAP Smear



The large drop in cervical cancer is largely thanks to the pap smear which women do yearly.  But a century ago, one woman gave herself daily pap smears to help develop a life-saving test. Her name was Andromache “Mary” Papanicolaou, the wife of George Papanicolaou and together they’re behind the test that’s named after them. But Mary’s contributions remains overlooked.  

George began researching whether an animal’s X and Y chromosomes determined their offspring’s sex.  To do so, he needed to harvest their eggs just before ovulation but there was no way to know where in the reproductive cycle they were without killing them.  He thought cells sloughing off from an animal’s cervix into vaginal fluids might hold the key.  He noted the size and shape of skin cells in the vaginal fluid correlated with ovulation.   

Since he didn’t have a medical license to collect human samples, his wife Mary began collecting her own and did so for twenty-one years. She even recruited friends which formed a baseline for healthy vaginal samples throughout a woman’s life.  

When a woman in the study developed cervical cancer, George identified the pre-cancerous cells in her fluids. He shared his findings with peers, but it took twenty years to convince skeptics the test worked.  

In nineteen fifty-four, it was named the Pap test and hasn’t changed much since and became the gold standard.   George was nominated for the Nobel Prize but Mary wasn’t recognized until later in life by the American Cancer Society.      

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More Information

Lady Andromache (Mary) Papanicolaou: The Soul of Gynecological Cytopathology
This commentary serves to impress the astonishing and selfless contributions that Andromache (Mary) Papanicolaou made toward the scientific development of the Papanicolaou (Pap) test; for she alone was, and remains, the hidden soul of gynecological cytopathology

Mary Papanicolaou, whose decades of daily tests laid the basis of cervical screening
The next time you book yourself in for a cervical screen, spare a thought for the woman who endured a vaginal test every day for more than 20 years.