Papanikolaou, the pioneering inventor of the Pap smear, was born the son of a doctor on the Greek island of Euboea in 1883. According to the Google blog, he initially studied music and the humanities, but ultimately found his way to medical school at the astounding age of just 15 years old.
After graduating with top honors from the University of Athens, Papanikolaou worked with leprosy patients near his hometown and discovered a love of scientific research.
In 1910, the scientist earned a PhD in zoology from the University of Munich in Germany.
Three years later, Papanikolaou immigrated to New York with his wife, Andromachi Mavroyenis. There, the couple struggled to make a living. They’d sell carpets, sew buttons and play violin in restaurants to earn a few bucks a week.
Eventually, Papanikolaou landed a research gig at Cornell University, exploring cancers of the female reproductive system on a cellular level, a branch of pathology called cytopathology. His wife worked alongside him as a technician and test subject.
In 1928, he identified a cancerous cell in a vaginal smear sample from a woman with cervical cancer, demonstrating smears taken from the cervix could be viewed under the microscope and be correctly classified as cancerous.
He called the discovery, which led to two Nobel Prize nominations and multiple awards, “one of the greatest thrills I ever experienced during my scientific career,” according to Al Jazeera.
Today, the widely used, low-cost procedure known as the Pap smear is known to make early detection of cervical cancer in women possible, “slashing fatalities in half,” according to some estimates, Google’s doodle team reported. The test can also be used to detect other diseases of the female reproductive system.
Papanikolaou was 78 years old when he left New York for Miami, where he planned to help manage the Miami Cancer Institute.
Unfortunately, he died of a sudden heart attack shortly after the move on Feb. 19, 1962. The Florida institute was renamed the Papanikolaou Cancer Research Institute in his honor.
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