Then and Now: Marie Curie had ties to Mayo Clinic

It was only natural that one of the world’s great scientists and one of the world’s great medical centers should eventually make contact with each other.

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

The name of Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, is famous around the world, and it once graced two Mayo Clinic-affiliated buildings that no longer exist.

Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, moved to Paris in 1891, and shared a laboratory and marriage with fellow scientist Pierre Curie.

They also shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of radium and radioactivity.


Pierre Curie was killed in 1906 when he was hit by a horse-drawn wagon while crossing a Paris street. But Madame Curie, as she was widely known, continued her work, and in 1911, she received the Nobel in chemistry for her discovery of the elements polonium (named for her native country) and radium.

It was only natural that one of the world’s great scientists and one of the world’s great medical centers should eventually make contact with each other.

That happened initially in 1923 when Drs. Charlie Mayo and Henry Plummer, during a tour of European hospitals, heard that Curie was in need of spent radium ampules. According to a 2018 Mayo publication, when Dr. Charlie returned to Rochester, he had ampules sent to Curie in Paris.

Then, in 1925, Dr. Charlie and more than 100 physicians from the Inter-State Post-Graduate Medical Assembly toured Europe. During that trip, Dr. Charlie presented Madame Curie with an honorary membership in the organization.

Meanwhile, back in Rochester, the Curie Hospital had opened in 1920. The small hospital had 36 beds for Mayo patients who needed X-ray or radium treatments. The Curie Hospital closed in 1962, at which point, its services were shifted to the new Curie Pavilion, located on the subway level of the Damon Parkade. That building, in turn, was removed in the late 1990s to make way for the Gonda Building.

Since then, Mayo has continued to honor Curie with, for example, an exhibit in the Opus Building.

In recent years, Marie Curie’s story has been connected to the struggle of women to gain recognition in scientific fields. Maria (the Polish spelling of her first name), was born into a family of Polish patriots struggling against Russian domination of their country. She attended Warsaw’s so-called Flying University, which offered clandestine classes under the noses of Russian authorities.

Eventually, it became obvious that the studious young woman would have to leave Poland. She earned degrees at the University of Paris, and, like so many educated women of that time, was unable to find work on her own as a teacher or researcher. Curie was living in poverty when she joined the research lab of Pierre Curie.


Romance in the lab led to marriage in 1895. For the ceremony, Maria, now known as Marie, wore the same dark blue dress that served as her research uniform.

When the 1903 Nobel Prize was announced, Marie’s name was not part of the citation — women simply were not awarded the Nobel Prize in those days. Protests from fellow scientists eventually caused the oversight to be corrected.

On July 4, 1934, Maria Curie, the Polish girl whose fame reached around the world — all the way to Rochester, Minn. — died at a sanatorium in France of complications from exposure to radiation.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

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