Papanikolaou was born in Kymi on the island of Euboea, in Central Greece. He studied at the University of Athens where he received his medical degree in 1904. Six years later he received his Ph.D. from the University of Munich, Germany. After serving in the Greek Army as a doctor during the First Balkan War, in 1913 he emigrated to the U.S. in order to work in the department of Pathology of New York Hospital and the Department of Anatomy at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. He first reported that uterine cancer could be diagnosed by means of a vaginal smear in 1928, but the importance of his work was not recognized until the publication, together with Herbert Traut, of 'Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by the Vaginal Smear' in 1943. The book discusses the preparation of the vaginal and cervical smear, physiologic cytologic changes during the menstrual cycle, effect of various pathological conditions, and the changes seen in the presence of cancer of the cervix and the endometrium of the uterus. He thus became known for his invention of Papanikolaou's test, now known as the Pap smear, which is used worldwide for the detection and prevention of cervical cancer and other cytologic diseases of the female reproductive system.
Papanikolaou was a recipient of the Lasker Award.
- Papanicolaou G.N, Traut H.F. Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by the Vaginal Smear. New York, The Commonwealth Fund, 1943.
- Speert H. Obstetric and Gynecologic Milestones. New York, 1958. The MacMillan Company. Page 285-291.