What Is the Pap Test?

Ask the experts

Why is the pap smear called the pap smear?

Doctor's response

The Pap smear is named after Dr. George Papanicolaou (1883-1962). Born in Greece, Dr. Papanicolaou was, if you will, a double doctor. He received a medical degree from the University of Athens in 1904 and then he was awarded a PhD in zoology from the University of Munich in 1910.

Dr. Papanicolaou came to the United States in 1913 and became an assistant research biologist under Dr. Charles R. Stockard at Cornell Medical College in New York City. He stayed at Cornell for 47 years. There he and Dr. Stockard studied the role of chromosomes in sex determination. In the process, Dr. Pap noticed recurring changes in the cells in the vaginal discharge of the guinea pig over the menstrual cycle.

Extending his studies to humans, Dr. Pap began examining cellular changes in vaginal smears in 1923. He unexpectedly discovered that women with uterine cancer had "abnormal cells, with enlarged, deformed, or hyperchromatic nuclei." He called the discovery of these abnormal cells on the smear "one of the most thrilling experiences in my scientific career."

Dr. Pap's new smear test was at first viewed as quite unnecessary for the diagnosis of cancer of the cervix. Then, in 1943, he and the gynecologist Herbert F. Traut published a report titled "Diagnosis of uterine cancer by the vaginal smear." In the report they demonstrated clearly how cellular abnormalities could be detected before the tumor became invasive. It was a revolution in the management of cervical cancer.

The Pap smear test was soon accepted as a routine screening technique. Within two decades, cervical cancer dropped from the first to third place as a cause of cancer death in women.

Dr. Pap is considered a the founder of what is called exfoliative cytology -- the microscopic examination of cells shed from the surface of the body or from a tumor in order to detect cancer, gauge the effect of hormones at the cellular level, etc.

Dr. Pap applied his technique to other types of tumors including those in the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and urinary tracts and the breast. His method has also been used to predict cancer radiosensitivity and evaluate the effectiveness of radiotherapy. However, it is as the creator of the Pap smear that Dr. Pap is best remembered today.

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Reviewed on 1/11/2018