Mary Papanicolaou: The women whose daily testing laid the groundwork for cervical screening


Through decades of dedicated swabbing and sampling, Mary Pananicolaou and her husband George are recognised for the development of the cervical screening test known as the Pap test.

The daughter of a colonel in the Greek army, Mary had always been seen as a cultured and educated women, with her husband George working by her side when she became a laboratory technician at Cornell Medical College.

During their time at the laboratory, they helped lead a project investigating how alcohol damaged the chromosomes of guinea pig offspring. To achieve this, both used a small speculum to take tiny samples of guinea pig vaginal fluid, smearing them on slides and examining them under a microscope.

Mary with her husband George. Photo:

The next step was to begin testing on humans, with Mary and some of her friends willingly donating vaginal fluid every day to track their cellular changes from their reproductive years through to menopause.

According to Deborah Batesons from the Daffodil Centre, the research conducted by both Mary and George was a massive breakthrough for science as it indicated how pre-cancerous cells can change and develop over time.  

In 1969, the American Cancer Society awarded Mary with a special citation, with many seeing her as a woman who sacrificed herself to have a career in science.

Source: ABC




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