We talk about Maria Żurowska-Kurowska - a nurse, and social activist who, due to an unusual chain of events, had the opportunity to witness the development of renal replacement therapy - with Dr Janusz Ostrowski, professor at the  Postgraduate Medical Education Centre, director for the peritoneal dialysis at Diaverum Poland, nephrologist, historian of medicine, author or co-author of more than 170 publications and monographs and chapters in textbooks on internal medicine, nephrology, history of medicine and public health.


Who was Maria Kurowska, and was the nursing profession her dream?
Why did she choose this career path? 

I am glad to be able to tell you a little bit about one of the outstanding Polish nurses who contributed to the development of renal replacement therapy in the early days of this treatment method.

Maria Żurowska Kurowska was born in 1916 in Podłuże, in southeastern Poland, in what is now Ukraine. She graduated from the gymnasium of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Jarosław. From 1938, she studied at the Warsaw School of Economics. After the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, she was mobilised to the military hospital at the Technical Institute in Lviv, where before the war, she had received training in the Polish Red Cross. When the front line was closing in, her parents decided to move to Warsaw. Maria Żurowska then began her studies at the Warsaw Nursing School, established on the initiative of Ignacy and Helena Paderewski and Henryk Sienkiewicz. The school sponsors included the Polish and American Red Cross as well as Rockefeller Foundation.

Did she manage to complete school during the occupation? What was her life like after graduation?

Maria Żurowska graduated from nursing school at the end of 1942. However, as early as 30 December 1942, the Gestapo arrived at the Żurowski family's home in Warsaw and arrested her father, Roman Żurowski, and everyone present in the apartment. In addition to her father, Roman Żurowski, also her mother Karolina Żurowska, Maria, and her sisters Anna and Klementyna. The Gestapo determined that Maria's father was active in the Polish resistance.

The whole family was taken to Pawiak prison, where Roman Żurowski was tortured to death. Maria, together with her mother and sisters, was transferred to the Majdanek concentration camp in January 1943. In the same year, her sister Anna died of typhus in the camp. Maria, her mother and sister Klementyna were transferred to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in April 1944.

Was this the hardest time in Maria's life? How was she able to help others, while struggling to survive?

In Ravensbrück, Maria worked in the kitchen barracks cooking soup for fellow inmates. During her studies, Maria was involved in the Polish resistance. Through these contacts, she was able to smuggle medicines into the camp. These medicines were used also to combat typhus. When working as a block nurse, she risked her life and managed to save the lives of fellow inmates with smuggled medicines several times. Earlier, while still in Majdanek, she also harboured Jewish women, giving them a Polish identity. Sometime after the war, one of the rescued women sent a letter to thank Maria. The woman was already living in Israel then. During her time in the concentration camp, Maria provided help and support to her fellow inmates.

She had a strong personality and extraordinary fortitude.

Yes, she got them from her family home full of love and thrift, and sensitivity to others. She believed it was necessary to care for the weak and less resourceful. Respect for work and goodness shaped her actions.

What were these actions?

Maria Żurowska's ability to take care of her fellow inmates, to share her good heart and to maintain good manners was evident. Human decency and dignity should not be ignored, but protected and kept at the forefront - that was her watchword against the system based on humiliation. Maria initiated a variety of activities that kept the spirit of her fellow inmates alive and was co-organising substitutes for their former lives, moments of joy and hope. She was shown gratitude for this.

Maria Kurowska was almost miraculously saved from death in the camp - how did it happen?

In the last months of her time in the camp, she was very sick. On 25 April 1945, she was added to the list of sick prisoners who were allowed to go to Sweden for treatment as part of an unusual humanitarian action called "White Buses" undertaken by the government of neutral Sweden with the participation of the Danish government and the Swedish Red Cross. Via Flensburg and Copenhagen, she arrived in Malmö, Sweden, on 28 April 1945. Thanks to the mission, which lasted two months, 17,000 people were saved.

Then she found herself in Sweden. How did she cope in the early post-war years? 

Maria quickly got a job in Sweden. In July and August 1945, she worked for the Red Cross at the Södervärnskolan emergency hospital in Malmö, in Foteviken and Solhem as a paediatric nurse in a place dedicated to orphans from concentration camps. In the autumn of 1945 and spring of 1946, she worked in Täby and Sigtuna as an educational nurse at medical training courses for young women who had come to Sweden as refugees. The courses were organised by the Red Cross. Her activities included training nursing aides to work at the Health Centre in Otwock founded by the Swedes.

She developed in the profession of a nurse. What is her connection to the Lund Centre, where modern nephrology care developed?

Yes, her growth in the nursing profession was very important. From 1947 to 1964, she was an assistant in the scientific research laboratory of Professor Nils Alwall (1904 - 1986) at the university clinic in Lund. Nills Alwall was one of the pioneers of dialysis-based therapy in the 1940s. He designed and applied the "artificial kidney" - one of the first haemodialysis devices, shortly after Willem Kolff. So it can be said that Maria had the opportunity to observe the birth of modern nephrology therapy.

The prototype of this device, designed by Alwall, was also brought to Poland in the early years after World War II. It made its way to Kraków and enabled Dr Zygmunt Hanicki to make the first experimental measurements in Poland of the processes occurring during dialysis, described in 1949-1950 in the “Przegląd Lekarski [Medical Review]” journal.

The first two "artificial kidneys" brought in 1958 to Poland, to Poznań and Warsaw, were Alwall-type kidneys.

Maria Żurowska-Kurowska herself was also the author of the article "Sztuczna nerka ratuje życie [Artificial Kidney Saves Lives]" published in the “Pielęgniarka Polska [Polish Nurse]” magazine in 1958.

What was her further work at the Lund Centre in Sweden like? What were her ties to Poland? It is reported that Zbyszek Cybulski visited her in Sweden.

Maria Żurowska-Kurowska, and her husband Bożysław Kurowski, who also worked at the Nils Alwall’s Centre, were highly regarded by the legendary professor Alwall. In the postwar period, she participated in the work of the Children's Aid Committee in Poland, sending food and clothing parcels to Poland. Working with Caritas, she assisted children coming to Lund for surgery. Their home was open to many doctors from Poland, who came to Lund to train at the famous Alwall dialysis centre.

I had the pleasure and honour of being introduced to Mrs and Mr Kurowski and meeting them many times afterwards.

The aforementioned Zbyszek Cybulski was also a guest at the home of Mrs and Mr Kurowski. In the 1960s, Cybulski shot a movie in Sweden in which he starred.  He then visited Maria and her family in Lund, thanking them on behalf of his brother and himself for the help he had received.

Maria started a family in Sweden?

As early as February 1946, in Malmö, Maria married Bożysław Kurowski, a Polish lawyer. From 1940 to 1945, he also was a prisoner in the German concentration camps of Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, and Mauthausen-Gusen. Maria and Bożysław had four children: Anna, Roman, Zofia and Jadwiga. They both did a lot for the Catholic Church in Lund.  They contributed to the construction of the first Catholic church in this Swedish city. Maria Żurowska-Kurowska was awarded the silver medal of the Swedish Red Cross, and in 1986 "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” cross by Pope John Paul II.

Maria Żurowska-Kurowska is a remarkable figure. 

Thank you for the interview.

Maria Żurowska-Kurowska is preparing dialysis machine.png


Dr Janusz Ostrowski, Professor of Postgraduate Medical Education Centre, Director for Peritoneal Dialysis, Diaverum Poland

Author or co-author of more than 170 publications and monographs and chapters in textbooks on internal medicine, nephrology, history of medicine and public health. The current main focus of the professor's scientific activity is the history of medicine, especially issues concerning the early development of nephrology and renal replacement therapy in Poland and the world. He served as President of the International Association for the History of Nephrology from 2017-2019.

In 2022, Prof. J. Ostrowski completed a one-week internship at the Nephrology Clinic at Lund University in Sweden, which resulted from his long-standing cooperation with the aforementioned clinic and the head of the dialysis centre there, Professor Jan Kurkus from Warsaw. The Lund Nephrology Clinic, one of the first in Europe, organised by Prof. Nills Alwall, had a great influence on the development of dialysis-based therapy in Poland. Many Polish physicians, future professors, completed their training at this clinic before the introduction of renal replacement therapy with haemodialyses as routine treatment for patients with chronic kidney disease in Poland.

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