Dr. Irena Grasberg Koprowska began her medical career after fleeing her native Poland and the invading German army in 1939. As a young physician who worked in a pathology lab with little supervision and virtually no textbooks, she became a pioneer in the field of cytopathology. Dr. Irena Koprowska co-authored, with Dr. George Papanicolaou, a case report of the earliest diagnosis of lung cancer by a sputum smear. She became the first female full professor at Philadelphia's Hahnemann University in 1964.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1917, to Henryk and Eugenia Grasberg, Irena Grasberg was educated in Warsaw, where she met and married her medical school classmate, Hilary Koprowski, in 1938. They both earned their M.D. degrees from Warsaw University in 1939, the same year as the German invasion of Poland which marked the beginning of World War II.
The couple quickly fled war-torn Warsaw, making their way to France, where Irena Koprowska interned in medicine at the Villejuif Lunatic Asylum in Seine, France, in 1940. When her husband found work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Irena Koprowska became an assistant pathologist at Rio de Janeiro's City Hospital Miguel Cuoto, from 1942 to 1944, where she performed hundreds of autopsies to develop expertise without the guidance of textbooks or formal instruction.
Dr. Koprowska faced discrimination and unfairness as she tried to build her career, even losing her lab to a male colleague after leaving for a brief sabbatical. She also made accommodations typical at that time, giving up her career in order to follow her husband, a virologist, and raising two sons, both of whom would also become doctors.
Just as Dr. Koprowska was finally settling in to her work in Rio, and was offered an assistant professorship at the medical school there, her husband decided in 1944 to move the family to New York City to improve his research opportunities. Although Irena Koprowska didn't speak English and feared having to begin her medical career all over again, she felt unable to stand in the way of her husband's advancement and so accompanied him to New York.
In New York, she took a volunteer position as an assistant in a pathology department at Cornell's medical center, then progressed to paid positions, and obtained her credentials as a pathologist. All this led her to her greatest mentor, George N. Papanicolaou, M.D., the inventor of the Pap smear, a diagnostic tool for uterine cancer. In the 1950s, Dr. Koprowska was one of his research fellows and became his closest associate; they also co-authored a case report of the earliest diagnosis of lung cancer by a sputum smear. She became a talented teacher of cytopathology, and a well-respected researcher and diagnostician, specializing in the early detection of cancers of the uterus, cervix, and lung. She also helped develop experimental cancer research programs.
In 1957, the family moved Philadelphia, where Dr. Koprowska encountered considerable adversity in her professional life, and was particularly badly treated by the heads of department. At Hahnemann Medical College, she began to receive recognition for her work, and eventually became the first woman to be made full professor in 1964. She was also the director of the School of Cytotechnology. From 1970 to 1987, she was director of the cytology lab at Temple University Hospital and professor of pathology at Temple University Medical School, where she developed and expanded the science of cytopathology. She has been professor emerita there since 1987.
In an article in the 1994 issue of Diagnostic Cytopathology, and nearly fifty years after she trained in Papanicolaou's laboratory, Dr. Koprowska recorded her account of the early days in cytology: "The common effort to convince the skeptics that Papanicolaou's method of diagnosing cancer was the best way to detect its presence at an early stage became a bond linking all of us. When we taught cytology, we felt more like we were preaching a gospel than teaching a subject...All of us had to constantly prove the validity of what we were doing, whereas now the value of cytologic diagnosis is fully recognized and taken for granted." Dr. Koprowska published over 100 scientific papers, and among many honors and medals, she received the Papanicolaou Award from the American Society of Cytology in 1985. For more than three decades, she also served as consultant to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and to the World Health Organization (WHO).