Doc: Pap tests named for doctor who developed technique

Keith Roach
To Your Health

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”?


Dear D.W.P.: “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 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.

Dear Dr. Roach: In giving good advice about drinking alcohol, you never mention it causing damaged brain cells. A neurologist once told me a brain scan of an alcoholic patient showed the ravages of alcohol. He granted that even much less drinking would cause some damage. When I asked him about the two martinis he had before dinner, he shrugged. He died at 73, probably due to his genes. I wouldn’t try to connect alcohol to cause of death, only the sharpness of one’s brain ’till the end.


Dear B.W.: A very recent studyfound that drinking even moderate amounts — eight standard drinks per week — increased the likelihood of brain atrophy (in the U.S., a “standard drink” is 14 grams of alcohol, about what is in 12 ounces of most beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a standard “shot” of distilled spirits). People who drank less alcohol had a nonsignificant amount of atrophy (but did not have any degree of protection). The study had flaws, relying on self-reporting, and had a relatively small sample group; however, the results certainly are plausible.

In addition, the more alcohol people drank, the more likely they were to have rapid decline in their cognitive ability. There were fewer women in the study, and researchers could not make meaningful comments about men versus women; however, because of men and women’s average size, as well as the relative size and activity of the liver, it would be expected that women might have a greater effect for the same amount of alcohol.

Based on this study, even moderate amounts of alcohol may adversely affect the brain as we age. This new info should be considered in future guidelines on alcohol use.

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