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Tribute to Mary McCrea Curnen, MD, PhD: A Central Figure in the Program for Humanities in Medicine's Creation

October 22, 2021
by Abigail Roth

Mary G. McCrea Curnen, MD, PhD, who played a central role in the creation of Yale School of Medicine’s Program for Humanities in Medicine (PHM), passed away on September 29, 2021, at age 98.

“The death of Mary McCrea Curnen represents the end of an important defining chapter in the history of the Humanities Program at the Yale Medical School,” states Professor Emeritus of Medicine and former PHM Director Thomas Duffy, MD. Duffy continues, “We all appropriately esteem Howard Spiro for his inestimable contributions in the founding of the Program, but we have always failed to acknowledge the three individuals who assisted him in realizing that goal,” one of whom was McCrea Curnen. (Clara Gyorgyey and Priscilla Norton are the two other individuals.)

Born in Brussels, Belgium in 1922, McCrea Curnen came to the United States following Belgium’s liberation at the end of the Second World War and the completion of her medical degree and internship at Louvain University, to complete her residency and undertake laboratory research at Yale.

McCrea Curnen pursued a concentration in virology and was a central figure in the first isolation of type 1 polio virus from human cerebrospinal fluid. She became a clinical professor of epidemiology & pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine in 1982, and also the director of the Connecticut Cancer Epidemiology Unit. Additionally, she served as associate editor for the Yale Journal of Biology & Medicine from 1985 to 2002, and then as a faculty advisor for the journal until 2004.

In 1992, she was named assistant director of the PHM and, the following year, associate director of the program. Duffy describes McCrea Curnen as “a very thoughtful and probing personality with an elegant and gentle manner that belied her fierce determination in moving forward her and Dr. Spiro’s agenda.” He says she brought the rigor of scientific thought to all of her work, and that her conception of the humanities and medicine was “heavily influenced by her deep spirituality, which guided the fashion in which she lived her life.”

McCrea Curnen had a lasting impact on the PHM, which is reflected in the many works that were published by the program while she was involved with it. Duffy says she was the driving force in all of these collaborations and that “without her presence, it is doubtful that the works would have seen completion. These books brought the attention of a world-wide audience to Yale’s Program for the Humanities.”

The books include:

Empathy and the Practice of Medicine, edited by H.M. Spiro, M.G. McCrea Curnen, E. Peschel, and D. St. James, Yale University Press, Dec. 1993

Facing Death, Where Culture, Religion, and Medicine Meet, edited by H.M. Spiro, M.G. McCrea Curnen, and Lee Palmer Wandel, Yale University Press, 1996

Doctors Afield, edited by Mary G. McCrea Curnen, Howard Spiro, and Deborah St. James, Yale University Press, 1999

McCrea Curnen’s son, Pierre McCrea, PhD, says his mother “derived much satisfaction from working with colleagues toward the objectives of the program.” Duffy adds that she, along with Gyorgyey and Norton, brought “an extraordinary depth and talent to the enterprise—they were collaborators in a joint effort that has become a leading program of its kind in America. Their contribution to the institution is a lasting one.”

Submitted by Abigail Roth on October 22, 2021