The Cancer Detectives

March 2024 | GBH American Experience


How one of the most impactful, lifesaving tests for women was created and popularized by a Greek immigrant and his wife, a famous Japanese-American illustrator who was detained in a WW2 internment camp, and a groundbreaking Black female surgeon. In the 1950’s, survival rates from cancer of any kind were low. Damaging surgery and unsophisticated radiotherapy were the main treatments, assuming the disease was detected in time for anything to be done. Cervical cancer was often asymptomatic until it was well advanced, and by that time, it was often a death sentence. This dramatic story of the fight against cervical cancer revolves around three main characters: Dr. Papanicolaou, a Greek immigrant whose single-minded pursuit of the development of a diagnostic test saved hundreds of thousands of women; Hashime Murayama, the exquisitely talented artist who became National Geographic’s first in-house illustrator, but because of his Japanese heritage, was fired, interned in a WWII camp, then released to work on the project; and Helen Dickens, a groundbreaking Black female surgeon, who overcame deep distrust between the Black community and medical professionals to save the lives of thousands of women. The work of these three Life Savers slashed death rates of this previously unfightable cancer by more than 60 percent.


Co-Director, Amanda Pollak has been making highly acclaimed documentaries for public television for more than two decades. As a partner at Insignia Films, she began her tenure by producing the series Reporting America At War, and then moved on to create several AMERICAN EXPERIENCE films including The Sun Queen, Monopoly, Citizen Hearst. Las Vegas, New Orleans, Kit Carson, Roads to Memphis, Panama Canal, Custer’s Last Stand, Grand Coulee Dam, 1964, The Big Burn, Edison, Space Men, The Great War and Sealab. Pollak recently produced Into the Grand Canyon, an environmental adventure story that premiered on National Geographic and is now streaming worldwide on Disney+, and executive produced Ailey, an immersive portrait of the renowned choreographer, which premiered at Sundance, was released theatrically by NEON, and will be broadcast on PBS’s American Masters. Pollak was part of the founding team for Retro Report, an online series of investigative pieces featured on the front page of The New York Times digital edition. Her work has been recognized with three Emmy Awards, a Cine Golden Eagle Award, and the George Foster Peabody Award.

Co-Director, Gene Tempest is an award-winning American filmmaker and historian. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe and The New York Times, and her screenwriting has been recognized by the Writers Guild of America. A coeditor of Une histoire de la guerre (A History of War) and a former contributor to the French magazine L’Histoire, her projects include the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries Citizen Hearst, The Sun Queen, and The Great War. She received her BA from the University of California at Berkeley, and her PhD from Yale University, where she won the Hans Gatzke Prize. She has taught at SUNY Cortland and Boston University, and from 2016-2017 served as the first ever Historian in Residence for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE at WGBH-Boston where she helped fund and develop new history programming for public television.