The Mystery of the Missing Medallion

UB alumnus helps bring a Polish hero home

By Rebecca Rudell | Photograph by Douglas Levere

Something always gets lost when you move, right? That’s what happened to the Marie Curie medallion when Lockwood Library moved to the North Campus in the 1970s. In fact, four of eight medallions that were created for UB by stained glass artisan Jozef Mazur disappeared. Then, in 2007, Gregory Witul (BA ’05), a historian researching Mazur, spotted the Curie medallion on eBay and alerted the curator of UB’s Polish Collection. On learning of the situation, the seller donated the medallion back to the university. But there are still three more at large, so keep an eye out.

A Nobel woman

Science wonder couple Marie Curie (born Maria Salomea Skłodowska) and husband Pierre discovered radium and polonium, coined the term “radioactivity,” and generously chose not to patent the medical applications of radium so that all researchers could benefit from their findings. The Curies won a Nobel Prize for physics, and Marie was awarded a second one for chemistry. Her curiosity and bravery while studying one of the most dangerous elements on the planet led to the radiation therapy we still use to fight cancer today. Unfortunately, it also caused her death at 66, as safety measures for handling radium had not yet been developed.

The medallion is in the lower right pane of the window behind the seated man in the the Polish Room. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

One glassy guy

Born in 1897 on Buffalo’s Polish east side, Jozef Mazur completed more than 50 stained-glass projects in his hometown alone—and many more in churches around the country. In 1955, he designed eight medallions portraying famous Poles, including Curie, Copernicus and Chopin, for UB’s Polish Room in the original Lockwood Library (now Abbott Hall). Four decorated a paned window; the others were made into a chandelier, which currently hangs in the Polish Room in Lockwood Library.

Sacred art, secular subject

While stained glass is typically used in churches to depict angels and saints, “in the cathedral of learning that is the university, they chose to make Marie Curie a saint,” says Witul. “They” refers to the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, which commissioned the medallions. To portray Curie, Mazur combined elements from two stained-glass styles popular in Buffalo at the time: Gothic Revival (indicated by the use of primary colors) and Munich Pictorial (finely drawn faces, hair and clothing).

Fun (and not-so-fun) facts about radiation

  • Bananas contain high levels of a radioactive isotope of potassium. But not to worry: You’d have to eat millions to experience even mild radiation sickness.
  •  In the early 20th century, radium was added to dozens of items—from water to face powder—with the promise of healthfulness and radiance. Instead, the quack concoctions caused necrosis of the jaw, bone fractures and death.