Cytology Early History and Modern Use

Kimberly Slifer, Ruth Ann Steinbrecher
  • Author
    Kimberly Slifer

    Kimberly Slifer has a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. Additionally, she has two master’s degrees. One in biology education and one in educational leadership. She has eight years of experience teaching high school Biology and Anatomy as well as Dual Enrollment Biology.

  • Instructor
    Ruth Ann Steinbrecher

    Ruth Ann has taught college-level Science and has a master's degree in Biology.

Learn what cytology is. Understand the early history of cytology and discover how the field has developed over the years with the usage of cytology tests. Updated: 02/21/2022

What is Cytology?

Cytology is the examination of cells found in tissues or bodily fluids in order to diagnose diseases or illnesses. Physicians will use this study to screen for cancer, check for abnormalities in a fetus, analyze pap smears, and diagnose infectious organisms. Cancer is defined as abnormal cell growth; being able to study cells in cytology will support analysis of potentially cancerous cells. This study is different from histology- the study of tissues. This is different because it examines individual cells.

Image 1: Normal cells vs. cancerous cells. Physicians can utilize cytology to see if the individual cells look abnormal and cancerous.

Cytology

Cytology's Early History

The original scientist that studied cells was Robert Hooke. In 1665, Hooke tested microscopes and perfected the ability to see microscopic structures that no one had seen before. He coined the term "cell" after discovering them in a piece of cork he was examining. He named them this because the shape looked like cells Monks lived in.

The next scientist with an influence on our knowledge of cells is Anton van Leeuwenhoek. Leeuwenhoek is known as the father of microbiology. He invented the microscope which allowed Hooke to be able to see microscopic organisms and discover the cell. Leeuwenhoek is also famous for discovering bacteria, sperm cells, yeasts, and mold. All of these different discoveries are critical to cytology as they are key to diagnoses.

Matthias Schleiden along with Theodor Schwann are known as the originators of the cell theory. After analyzing numerous plants under the microscope, they deduced that all plants are made of cells. Afterward, they analyzed different organisms in the animal kingdom and found that all animals were composed of cells. These discoveries are how we know today that all living organisms are made of cells. It is necessary to understand this to know that in cytology, everything that can be studied is a living organism.

Modern Cytology

Jumping into the 20th century, Ernst Ruska, a German engineer, was the inventor of the electron microscope. Because of this invention, we are able to see microscopic organisms with greater detail and observe things smaller than ever before. This microscope can identify viruses, molecules, and atoms. This invention was a huge development for the field of cytology and being able to identify pathogens that harm patients.

Henrietta Lacks was a woman with cervical cancer who died in 1951. Her cervical cancer cells were critical to cancer research in the field of cytology. For years, Dr. George O. Gey analyzed cells that were found in cervical cancer tumors. Before Henrietta, all the cells died immediately and were of no use to his experiments. However, her cells were special- they were doubling every 20-24 hours. This proved useful to Dr. Gey; he named these cells HeLa cells. Due to their ability to proliferate, these cells helped scientists test the effects of radiation, poisons, viruses, and vaccines on human cells. Because of these cells, the polio vaccine was created. Henrietta Lacks' cells were a vital part of the field of cytology and being able to understand cell growth and the different effects pathogens have on cells.

What Is Cytology?

To define cytology, we can break down the word into two parts. The suffix -logy, or -ology means the 'study of.' To find out what we're studying, we look to the prefix cyto, which means 'cell' and is derived from the Greek word kytos, meaning 'hollow vessel' or 'container.' Put these two together, and we have our definition: cytology is the study of cells. More specifically, cytology is a branch of science that studies how cells work and grow and what they're made of.

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Cytology Tests

Cytology tests are done for either diagnostic or screening purposes. If the patient is brought in for a diagnostic cytology test, the doctor is looking at their cells. This is to see if they currently have the disease or pathogen in question. If the patient is having a screening cytology test, the doctor is looking at their cells. This is to see if there is potential for the patient to have this disease in the future. A common screening exam that is performed is a Pap test done at yearly gynecology appointments.

Early History

The history of cell science is closely linked with the invention and advancement of the microscope. Robert Hooke was the first scientist to use the word 'cell' in 1665 when he looked at slices of cork through a lit compound microscope (a microscope with two or more lenses) and observed very small, irregular boxes that reminded him of tiny rooms, or cells. Hooke wrote about his findings and drew the structures he saw in his book Micrographia, which was published in 1665.

We now know that the small 'cells' Hooke observed were actually the walls of plant cells that had died. Anton van Leeuwenhoek used a more powerful magnifying microscope to look more closely at specimens found in human body fluids in 1683. He noticed tiny specimens that were capable of movement and, therefore, alive. Van Leeuwenhoek named these little moving objects animalcules. With his more advanced microscope, Van Leewenhoek was even able to observe structures within cells, including the nucleus of a red blood cell.

The importance of cells to all forms of life was not fully recognized until the development of cell theory. The earliest (classical) cell theory was developed in the 1838 by plant scientist Matthias Schleiden and animal scientist Theodor Schwann. They each came to the same conclusion that the living things they studied were composed of cells. The classical cell theory summarized the ideas of the previously mentioned scientists into the following points:

  • All organisms are made up of one or more cells
  • Cells are the fundamental functional and structural units of life

In 1858, Rudolf Virchow added to the classical cell theory with the idea that:

  • Cells only come from other cells

Modern Cytology

The late 19th century showed further advancement in cell biology, with more and more scientists coming up with ways to grow, study, and manipulate tissues and cells outside of a living body in a lab. Early 'cell food' mixtures included water, salt, sugar, and chemicals to control the levels of acid in the solution. Synthetic cell food, called cell media, was improved by adding amino acids and vitamins to the solutions.

New ways to look at cells under the microscope were made possible by the staining of cells. Special dyes were added to cells to make them easier to observe as far back as 1891. Now, there are many kinds of cellular staining, from simple dyes that absorb into different parts of the cell to chemicals that can make cells literally light up under the microscope.

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Video Transcript

What Is Cytology?

To define cytology, we can break down the word into two parts. The suffix -logy, or -ology means the 'study of.' To find out what we're studying, we look to the prefix cyto, which means 'cell' and is derived from the Greek word kytos, meaning 'hollow vessel' or 'container.' Put these two together, and we have our definition: cytology is the study of cells. More specifically, cytology is a branch of science that studies how cells work and grow and what they're made of.

Early History

The history of cell science is closely linked with the invention and advancement of the microscope. Robert Hooke was the first scientist to use the word 'cell' in 1665 when he looked at slices of cork through a lit compound microscope (a microscope with two or more lenses) and observed very small, irregular boxes that reminded him of tiny rooms, or cells. Hooke wrote about his findings and drew the structures he saw in his book Micrographia, which was published in 1665.

We now know that the small 'cells' Hooke observed were actually the walls of plant cells that had died. Anton van Leeuwenhoek used a more powerful magnifying microscope to look more closely at specimens found in human body fluids in 1683. He noticed tiny specimens that were capable of movement and, therefore, alive. Van Leeuwenhoek named these little moving objects animalcules. With his more advanced microscope, Van Leewenhoek was even able to observe structures within cells, including the nucleus of a red blood cell.

The importance of cells to all forms of life was not fully recognized until the development of cell theory. The earliest (classical) cell theory was developed in the 1838 by plant scientist Matthias Schleiden and animal scientist Theodor Schwann. They each came to the same conclusion that the living things they studied were composed of cells. The classical cell theory summarized the ideas of the previously mentioned scientists into the following points:

  • All organisms are made up of one or more cells
  • Cells are the fundamental functional and structural units of life

In 1858, Rudolf Virchow added to the classical cell theory with the idea that:

  • Cells only come from other cells

Modern Cytology

The late 19th century showed further advancement in cell biology, with more and more scientists coming up with ways to grow, study, and manipulate tissues and cells outside of a living body in a lab. Early 'cell food' mixtures included water, salt, sugar, and chemicals to control the levels of acid in the solution. Synthetic cell food, called cell media, was improved by adding amino acids and vitamins to the solutions.

New ways to look at cells under the microscope were made possible by the staining of cells. Special dyes were added to cells to make them easier to observe as far back as 1891. Now, there are many kinds of cellular staining, from simple dyes that absorb into different parts of the cell to chemicals that can make cells literally light up under the microscope.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a cytology test for?

Cytology tests are done to analyze the cells of a problematic area in the body. This test would determine if the area is cancerous or if the patient had a pathogenic illness.

What is a simple definition of cytology?

Cytology is the study of individual cells in a patient to exam for abnormalities or pathogenic illnesses. This is different from histology as that is the study of whole tissues, not individual cells.

Can cytology detect cancer?

Yes, cytology is done to test for individual cells to see if those cells are cancerous. The physician can tell from analyzing the cells if they have cancerous abnormalities.

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