Thinking Citizen Blog — The Pap Smear Revolution: George Papanikolaou, Helen Octavia Dickens

Thinking Citizen Blog — Thursday is Health, Health Care, and Global Health Policy Day

Today’s Topic: The Pap Smear Revolution: George Papanikolaou (1883–1962), Helen Octavia Dickens (1909–2001)

Cervical cancer mortality dropped by about 70% between the 1920s and the 1960s thanks to the “Pap Smear” invented by a Greek immigrant physician, George Papanikolaou. The benefits of the test were brought to black American women by pioneer gynecologist Helen Octavia Dickens. Today, a few more details on both historical figures plus some background on cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

GEORGE PAPANIKOLAOU (1883–1962) — discovery in the 1920s, widespread adoption not until 1950s

1.“After studying medicine in Greece and Germany, he emigrated in 1913 to the United States.”

2. “He first reported that uterine cancer cells could be detected in vaginal smears in 1928, but his work was not widely recognized until the 1940s.”

3. “An extensive trial of his techniques was carried out in the early 1950s.”

NB: “In 1961, he was invited to the University of Miami to lead and develop the Papanikolaou Cancer Research Institute there.” But he would die before the center opened. His wife, Andromachi Papanikolaou, continued his work until her death in 1982.

HELEN OCTAVIA DICKENS (1909–2001) — by 1975 deaths of black women from cervical cancer were a third of what they had been in the 1930s (but still twice that of white women)

1. Daughter of a former slave (who was nine years old at the end of the Civil War).

2. First African American woman to be certified as a gynecologist in Philadelphia.

3. “In 1948, she was appointed the first female head of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Philadelphia’s Mercy Douglass Hospital. In 1950, she became the first black female fellow of the American College of Surgeons.”

NB: “Dickens was instrumental in spreading the Pap smear to doctors’ offices across Pennsylvania. By 1965, she had had trained more than 200 black physicians how to perform and interpret the test. She also empowered women to take matters into their own hands.” For more details, see second link below.


1. “Each year in the United States, about 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed and about 4,000 women die of this cancer.”

2. “Hispanic women have the highest rates of developing cervical cancer, and Black women have the highest rates of dying from cervical cancer.?

3. “Cervical cancer which in this country was the number one killer of women, is now ranked 12th in cancer deaths for women in the US.”

NB: “Human papillomavirus infection (HPV) causes more than 90% of cases; most people who have had HPV infections, however, do not develop cervical cancer. Worldwide, cervical cancer is both the fourth-most common type of cancer the fourth-most common cause of death from cancer in women.” Globally, there were 604,000 new cases of cervical cancer in 2020 and 342,000 deaths. (see last link below)

THE HPV VACCINE — not just for cervical cancer (see next to last link below)

1.“It is estimated that HPV vaccines may prevent 70% of cervical cancer, 80% of anal cancer, 40% of vulvar cancer and show more than 90% efficacy in preventing HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers.”

2. First introduced in 2006.

3. As of 2017, routine in 71 countries.

Pap test — Wikipedia

The Scientist Behind the Pap Smear Saved Countless Women from Cervical Cancer,Papanicolaou%20test%20in%20the%201940's.

Georgios Papanikolaou — Wikipedia

Aurel Babeș — Wikipedia

The female physician who popularised the Pap smear

HPV vaccine — Wikipedia


PDF with headlines — Google Drive


#1 A graphic guide to justice (9 metaphors on one page).

#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, 11/17/20


Please share the most interesting thing you learned in the last week related to health, health care or health care policy — the ethics, economics, politics, history…. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to health are or health care policy that the rest of us may have missed. Or just some random health-related fact that blew you away.

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your mind something really important you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that matters.



Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.

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John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.