Cervical cancer was the deadliest form of cancer for women until physician George Papanicolau developed a highly effective method to detect the disease even before any symptoms were present. Papanicolau arrived at the Cornell Medical College from Greece in 1913. During the 1930s he found that vaginal smears, when placed under a microscope, could show the presence of cancerous cells. The medical establishment, though, dismissed the idea that cancer could be detected in individual cells. Papanicolau later wrote that “I found myself totally deprived of funds for continuation of my research…. At a moment when every hope had almost vanished, the Commonwealth Fund…stepped in.”
Though it realized the grant was “highly speculative,” Commonwealth offered him a research grant of $1,800 in 1941. Using smears from a broad sample of patients, Papanicolau quickly found that his method did indeed identify cellular abnormalities, even before the cells became fully cancerous. The discovery was momentous, amounting to a method of cancer detection even earlier than biopsy, and less difficult, intrusive, and expensive.
In 1943, the Commonwealth Fund itself published Papanicolau’s findings in a groundbreaking study, Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by the Vaginal Smear. The “Pap” test, named for its originator, continues to be the most effective and affordable way to detect cervical cancer today. It heads off thousands of deaths every year.