Smear Campaign

Decades after the death of a great doctor, a pair of jet setters claims his legacy

Kalvin is less circumspect. She turned down a chance to speak at the event and snubbed Rocky's invitation. When he tried to convince the corps president to auction some of Olga's artwork, Kalvin says, "nothing came of it. We got stuck with a couple of paintings."

She suspects Rocky is attempting to mislead potential donors by implying an affiliation with the corps. "If he makes money, we may be looking at a lawsuit," Kalvin continues, her voice rising in anger. "He's using us, and he's trying to use other people."


Matthew Tibet Zappia spent several years estranged from his father, Rocky. When they reunited, Matt had a new stepmother. "Right off the bat, I felt that Olga was just this little girl," Matt recalls.
Joshua Prezant
Matthew Tibet Zappia spent several years estranged from his father, Rocky. When they reunited, Matt had a new stepmother. "Right off the bat, I felt that Olga was just this little girl," Matt recalls.

The story of Rocky and Olga is rooted in the ancestral tale of Dr. Pap. Although in the 1920s he developed a test that would save untold lives, Pap was a headstrong child whose energy, though considerable, was splintered among his many interests. He was fascinated by music, art, and inquiry.

Physically Pap was bold: Sometimes he'd ignore his elders' warnings and row the roiling Aegean merely to test his mettle. He tried to join the Greek navy but was rejected in a clear case of age discrimination -- he was 13 years old.

Eventually Pap followed in his father's footsteps and became an army doctor. After completing his service, Pap returned to start a private practice in Kymi, a tiny seaport on the island of Euboea. His stay lasted only a year, and his patients were few, mostly lepers neglected by local townsfolk. This left plenty of time for long walks through the island's olive groves, where he pondered great ideas. There was much to consider: Darwin had recently published his theory of evolution, which challenged Christian dogma. Then there were Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.

Soon wanderlust struck, and Dr. Pap traveled to Germany with the idea of combining his interests and studying the philosophy of biological sciences. But he was disappointed by the program at the University of Jena, so he enrolled at the University of Munich. After receiving his doctorate, Pap returned to Greece and defied his father by refusing a marriage that had been arranged for him. Instead he proposed to the daughter of a general, Mary Mavroyeni. He wed her in a small ceremony; his family did not attend. When Greece fought Turkey in the Balkan Wars, Papanicolaou served his country once again. Though he saw the horrors of war, he also learned from Greek-American soldiers of opportunities in America. With first-class tickets paid for by Mary's father and despite both families' strong reservations, the couple set sail for America. With little more than the $250 minimum required to enter the United States, they abandoned Greece and a life of affluence for a new, unknown world. It was New York, October 19, 1913.

Pap and Mary both found work at Gimbel's department store -- she doing alterations, he selling carpets. On the second day at his new job, he was called to show a rug to a woman he'd met on the first-class cruise. It was too humbling. He quit.

Eventually Pap landed a job in the Anatomy Department of Cornell University, and Mary was later hired as his assistant, which would become her lifelong role. Pap continued work he had begun in Munich. His study of guinea pigs was stymied by the difficulty of observing ovulation. He surmised that, like other female animals, rodents must have a menstrual period, even if it was not evident. No one had bothered to document the menstrual cycles of guinea pigs, so Pap purchased a nasal speculum and took samples himself. Eureka! Turns out guinea pigs have menstrual cycles, too. Pap's technique was soon used on other mammals.

By the 1920s Pap began extrapolating his findings to women. For his best guinea pig, he didn't have to look far from home. He studied his wife for 21 years, an unbroken body of research made possible by their childlessness. "That woman probably had more Pap smears than any woman in history," laughs Dr. R. Wallace Lind, a gynecologist who, with his gynecologist wife, Heide, has written about Dr. Pap.

Papanicolaou's innovation formed the foundation for what is called exfoliative cytology, the study of cells that have been scraped from an organism. After documenting normal cells, Dr. Pap turned his attention to cell pathology, revealing the test's utility in the field of cancer research. The Pap smear has since saved untold women's lives by helping doctors to detect cancers.

Pap never received the Nobel Prize, a fact Carol Ann Armenti, executive director of the New Jersey­ based Center For Cervical Health and a cervical cancer survivor, considers an injustice. "It's a denial of [Dr. Pap's] contribution as a human person," she says. In 1998 Armenti successfully lobbied Congress to designate January as National Cervical Health Month and also helped launch a project that sends vans to perform Pap smears on the needy, a program much like the Papmobiles Rocky and Olga envision.

Armenti says a vaccine for cervical cancer is on the way, which would make it "the first cancer we can all but eliminate." This could happen within the next two years, which, Armenti admits, would make more Papmobiles moot: "It would take that long to get vans donated." Nonetheless, when Rocky and Olga wrote to tell her about PAP earlier this year, she was delighted and quickly agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Cornell Museum show.

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