Health & Spirit

Pap tests are named for the doctor who developed the technique

By Keith Roach, M.D. on

DEAR DR. ROACH: You recently discussed Pap smears. What is the root meaning of the term? Is it a medical test invented by a Dr. Pap, or an acronym for some long and complex medical term, or a smear taken from a woman's "pap"? -- D.W.B.

ANSWER: "Pap" is for Dr. George Papanicolaou, a Greek-born physician/scientist who worked at Cornell University and the New York Hospital from 1913 to 1961 (I pass his bronze bust every day when I walk into the hospital). He showed in 1928 that cancer of the cervix can be diagnosed early by looking at a sample of cells taken with a swab or brush from the woman's cervix and smeared on a slide. He had been evaluating the change in the cells at different times of the menstrual cycle, based on the hormone activity. One of his subjects happened to be diagnosed with cervical cancer a few weeks after he obtained the smear, and he was able to subsequently identify the cancer from the cells on the slide. Since then, many women have been able to be treated early, or even before cancer has developed, and his test has extended the length and quality of the lives of millions of women.

History also owes a debt to Dr. Papanicolaou's wife, Mary. She not only managed his laboratory and household, but she also had sampling of her cervical cells (now called a Pap smear) done every day for 21 years, allowing her husband to clearly see the changes that happen over time.

READERS: Questions about the common problem of uterine fibroids are answered in the booklet of that name. To obtain a copy, write:

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DEAR DR. ROACH: You recently wrote about some of the benefits and risks of yoga. Would you suggest yoga to someone diagnosed with hypermobility? I'd like to try, but I worry about creating more problems. How do I know if an instructor has enough relevant experience to protect my joints? -- C.H.


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