Friday, April 06, 2012

Two Things I Never Knew Before: Smallpox and Pap Smears

  • Why do they call it smallpox?  Because the legions are not as big as the lesions in largepox, AKA syphilis.
  • Why do they call it a pap smear? It's named after Georgios Papanikolaou, the inventor.
I got the word on smallpox from a fascinating series on epidemics at the Yale open course page.I met Papanikolaou in Siddartha Mukherjee's history of cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies. Papanikolaou, I should add, is a wonderful story. He showed up in the United States with a European education in science but no money and no connections. He underwent an unproductive but mercifully brief apprenticeship as a carpet salesman at Gimbel's. He finally wangled a lab job at Cornell, scraping of the cervical cells of guinea pigs with Q-tips.  He graduated from female guinea pigs to real women; at one point he used his wife as a guinea pig.  In time he learned that the cells sloughed off from the cervix could foretell the stages of the menstrual cycle. Since most people already knew how to foretell the stage of the menstrual cycle, he didn't find a ready market. At last at struck him that he could use the same technique to foretell other transitions--for example,  to cancer.  Even armed with his insight, it took him more than 20 years to get support for a fullscale field test. 

No comments: