Marilyn Carlson Nelson and Barbara Carlson Gage

With a gift to individualized medicine, sisters help Mayo Clinic speed medical breakthroughs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

"With this gift, we're going to see how individualized medicine affects so many patients and people," Barbara Carlson Gage says.

Barbara Carlson Gage wraps her arm around her sister Marilyn Carlson Nelson as they sit on a pristine white couch watching the hubbub around them. The two share a smile, which turns into a chuckle, then an outright laugh — a sisterhood moment shared by only the two of them.

The siblings are situated just off the skyway of the Radisson Blu Mall of America hotel, the new swanky Carlson property that's turning heads for its imaginative spaces. The hotel's brand renaissance has the sisters' style stamped all over it, and today is bustling with photo and video shoots of the sisters and a Radisson-chain conference that's brought in company leaders from far and wide.

Barbara and Marilyn were brought up by two of the most successful hoteliers ever — Curt and Arleen Carlson, a couple who brought success to everything they touched. They began Gold Bond Stamp Company, a customer-loyalty company, with a $55 loan during the Great Depression. In 1960, they bought a tenth of a hotel and built it into the Radisson chain. In 1975 they bought a small group of restaurants that's now TGI Fridays.

The restless gene

The Carlsons built their business with trust and tireless work — what Curt called his "restless gene." He passed that gene onto his daughters. Of course the two are a mix of their parents, but they can clearly see who takes after whom — Marilyn inherited her father's brown hair and zeal for business while Barbara inherited her mother's blond locks and caring touch.

"In many ways Barbara modeled more after my mom who was a fantastic nurturer," Marilyn says. "I sat at my father's knee from the time I was tiny and listened as he posed business questions to me. Neither my mom nor my sister was interested in that, but he held my rapt attention."

As they grew older, Marilyn eventually succeeded her father as CEO of Carlson, continuing to grow the business into an international corporation. Barbara succeeded her father as president of the Carlson Family Foundation, focusing it on youth issues and education.

Both inherited their parents' drive to think beyond themselves and the ability to achieve what they set their minds to.

"My father, unlike many entrepreneurs today, spoke about building something to last. His dream was to have a multigenerational organization. He wanted the family to keep the company going and the company to keep the family together," Marilyn says.

Carry a goal in your pocket

Curt Carlson had a habit of scribbling down goals and hanging on to the paper until they were realized.

"He always taught us how important it was to have a goal. He always carried a goal in his pocket," Barbara says. "He taught us how important it was to set goals and to evaluate those goals by your actions.

"I think that I learned from my father how important it is to be optimistic and enthusiastic and to work hard. Everybody has to work hard — that isn't just part of being a leader. A work ethic has been instilled in us, and we'd like to pass that on to the next generation."

Their parents also instilled the company credo that they still recite. It's also posted on both their company and foundation websites: "Whatever you do, do with integrity. Wherever you go, go as a leader. Whomever you serve, serve with caring. Whenever you dream, dream with your all. And never, ever give up."

Marilyn, who served as chair of Mayo Clinic's board of trustees for four years before stepping down in February 2014, says the credo easily could be Mayo's. "I think that that credo is really close to Mayo Clinic's mission and their values of caring and of innovation and of being patient centered."

Generations past, generations to come

Four generations of the Carlson family have entrusted their care to Mayo Clinic. And because their family's philosophy and Mayo Clinic's approach to care are so closely aligned, the Carlson Family Foundation recently gave a leadership-level gift to the Center for Individualized Medicine. The gift will help Mayo tailor care to each individual's unique genetic makeup.

"With this gift, we're going to see how individualized medicine affects so many patients and people," Barbara says.

Marilyn's husband, Glen Nelson, is a doctor and former vice chairman of the medical device company Medtronic. He says the gift, because it supports Mayo Clinic's Center for Individualized Medicine, will make the type of firsthand impacts the family foundations of the Nelsons and Carlsons want to achieve.

"Medicine in the future will incorporate the use of an individual's genetic information in designing both lifestyle recommendations and medical interventions," he says. "We'll have the ability to actively manipulate an individual's genetic profile and replace or modify genes or even modify gene expressions.

"Mayo Clinic has both the tools and the environment in which that will happen faster and more precisely. Therefore, it will really contribute to the adoption of individualized medicine and provide leadership for the rest of the medical community, which is sometimes slow to adopt meaningful new ways of taking care of patients."

'My dream is …'

To honor the family's generosity, Mayo Clinic is naming the directorship of the Center for Individualized Medicine, currently held by Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., in their honor.

"When I speak to Mrs. Carlson Gage and Mrs. Carlson Nelson, I'm inspired by their vision, understanding and zeal to make sure as many people as possible benefit from what Mayo Clinic can offer. I'm humbled to be linked to these two amazing families," Dr. Farrugia says. "With our continuing partnership, Mayo Clinic will continue accelerating its ability to incorporate the latest in genomics research into care for patients and their families through the Center for Individualized Medicine."

Marilyn and Barbara aren't focused on the recognition. Marilyn says she and Dr. Farrugia share the same goal — to help as many people as possible.

"My dream is that within 10 years every baby will have its genome sequenced and that will be a blueprint for how they move through life and treatment," Marilyn says. "What I love is that Mayo has on the one hand the caring and on the other hand the rigor of science. Mayo engages the patient and the physician with 'What would you like to know? We can make that available.' Mayo Clinic doesn't decide for people. It decides with patients how they would like to be treated."

That's something that resonates with both sisters, who have watched as Mayo's commitment to the patient has never wavered throughout generations of their family's care.

"We're kind of bionic people thanks to Mayo," Marilyn says. "Mayo is our partner for healthy living. I don't know what we'd do without Mayo in our lives."

Two of a kind

Back at the Radisson Blu, as photographers, videographers, interviewers and business colleagues vie for their attention, each sister reflects on how important the other is. It would have been nearly impossible to achieve their dreams — and their parents' — without one another.

"I've just always felt grateful that we're sisters. We are so similar because there's only the two of us and we both value family so greatly," Barbara says. "We're so blessed to be involved in so many projects — together."

Among the din of the hotel, with schedules jam-packed, the two move seamlessly together — one minute Marilyn speaks to a journalist while Barbara has her photo taken, the next Barbara is being interviewed while Marilyn sits for the video. Each says she doesn't know what she'd do without the other. And that's just the way they like it.