(April 3, 1894 - January 28, 1963)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1941
Google Doodle Honoring the Pap Smear
Joined Papanikolaou to Prove the Pap Smear Predicts Cervical Cancer and Can Prevent Cancer
In 1931, Herbert Traut met George Papanikolaou when he joined the faculty of the Cornell University Medical College. The collaboration of these two men led to a major breakthrough in the early detection of uterine and cervical cancer, cutting its death rate drastically.
When they met, George Papanikolaou had been working on a method of collecting and interpreting cervical cells from women, in an effort to detect cancer, a test that became known as the "pap smear." In 1928 he had presented his findings at a medical conference in Michigan, but was met with scepticism. About the same time a Romanian, Aurel Babes developed a different test that also looked at cervical cells. But neither test gained traction in the real world. At the time, many physicians and scientists thought the idea of examining scraped dead cells for cancer was ridiculous and believed a biopsy was the only way to accurately detect it.
Herbert Traut thought Papanikolaou's ideas were good and the two formed a team in 1940. They began training medical technologists to distinguish healthy from unhealthy cells on a microscope slide after a vaginal smear. If the cells changed from flat to fat, they indicated cancer. Following the same women for two years, they were thrilled to find the smear detected some cancer cases that were still in the early stages - so early they were not found in normal biopsies! This meant the cancer could be found early enough to cure. Papanikolaou and Traut published their groundbreaking findings in a 1943 monograph titled, Diagnosis of uterine cancer by the vaginal smear. It still took decades more to change the medical establishment and make the test routine. When large studies eventually occurred, routine pap smears were shown to cut cervical cancer deaths by a third.
Dr. Traut lived a dynamic life. He was an accomplished cellist and a gun collector. He even mixed gunpowder to load into his own shells, to shoot from his guns.
As a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Field Artillery during WWI, Traut was wounded in his leg (which would bother him the rest of his life) but performed a deed for which he received the French Croix de Guerre with palm medal. His citation read, “During a German attack, having one of their guns blown to pieces and all the gunners killed, the second platoon of this battery, thanks to the energy of 2nd Lieutenant Herbert F. Traut, continued the barrage fire until their ammunition was exhausted. By doing so, they were able to shelter our first line, situated in front of them, from the enemy infantry attack.”
For some context: cervical cancer was the number one cancer killer of U.S. women in the early 1900’s. To introduce a test that identifies cervical cancer, precancerous dysplasia and other cytological diseases that is both easy to perform and inexpensive was a radical act. It spread quickly and widely, and is still considered the most successful screening test ever introduced for preventing serious malignancies by the American Cancer Society
- Iva Petrovchich
The HPV vaccines available may stop it before it ever needs to be detected and help make this a rare or never cancer. In fact, the HPV test and vaccination will likely eliminate the Pap smear altogether someday, but we owe much to the smear test and the women’s lives it has saved.
- Dr. Robert Wenhem
The Secret History of the War On Cancer - Chapter Discusingg Traut's Research