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Irène Joliot-Curie

Irène Joliot-Curie

Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1956)
Born12 September 1897(1897-09-12)
Paris, France
Died17 March 1956 (aged 58)
Paris, France
Radium Institute
Alma materSorbonne
Academic advisor  Paul Langevin
Known forTransmutation of elements
Notable prizes Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1935)

Irène Joliot-Curie née Curie, (12 September, 1897 – 17 March, 1956) was a French scientist, the daughter of Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie and the wife of Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Jointly with her husband, Irène was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. This made the Curies the family with most Nobel laureates to date. [1] Both children of the Joliot-Curies, Hélène and Pierre, are also esteemed scientists.


Childhood and education

Irène was born in Paris. After a year of traditional education, which began when she was 6 years old, her parents realized her obvious mathematical talent and decided that Irène’s academic abilities needed a more challenging environment. Marie joined forces with a number of eminent French scholars, including the prominent French physicist Paul Langevin to form “The Cooperative”, a private gathering of some of the most distinguished academics in France. Each contributed to educating one another’s children in their respective homes. The curriculum of The Co-operative was varied and included not only the principles of science and scientific research but such diverse subjects as Chinese and sculpture and with great emphasis placed on self expression and play. Her father died when she was 9.

This arrangement lasted for two years after which Irène re-entered a more orthodox learning environment at the Collège Sévigné in central Paris from 1912 to 1914 and then onto the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne, to complete her Baccalaureat.

Her studies at the Faculty of Science were interrupted by World War I.

World War I and after

Initially Irène was taken by her mother to Brittany but a year later when Irène turned 18, she was re-united with her mother running the 20 mobile field hospitals that Marie had established. The hospitals were equipped with primitive X-ray equipment made possible by the Curies’ radiochemical research. This technology greatly assisted doctors to locate shrapnel in wounded soldiers but it was crude and led to both Marie and Irène, who were serving as a nurse radiographers, being exposed to large doses of radiation themselves.

After the War Irène returned to Paris to study at The Radium Institute that had been built by her parents, completed in 1914 but empty during the war. Her doctoral thesis was concerned with the alpha rays of polonium, the second element discovered by her parents and named after Marie’s country of birth, Poland. Irène became Doctor of Science in 1925.

Marriage, children and joint research

As she neared the end of her doctorate in 1924 she was asked to teach the precise laboratory techniques required for radiochemical research to a young chemical engineer called Frédéric Joliot. In 1926 they were married (the couple both hyphenated their surnames). 11 months later, their daughter Hélène, who herself was to become an internationally acclaimed physicist, was born and 5 years after that, in 1932, a son, Pierre (named after Irène's father).

From 1928 Irène and Frédéric combined their research interests on the study of atomic nuclei. Though their experiments identified both the positron and the neutron they failed to interpret the significance of the results and the discoveries were later claimed by C.D. Anderson and James Chadwick respectively. These discoveries would have secured greatness indeed as together with J.J. Thompson’s discovery of the electron (in 1897) they finally replaced Dalton’s theory of atoms being solid spherical particles.

Finally, in 1934 they made the discovery that sealed their place in scientific history. Building on the work of Marie and Pierre, who had isolated naturally occurring radioactive elements, Irène and Frédéric realised the alchemist’s dream of turning one element into another, creating radioactive nitrogen from boron and then radioactive isotopes of phosphorus from aluminium and silicon from magnesium. By now the application of radioactive materials for use in medicine was growing and this discovery led to an ability to create radioactive materials quickly, cheaply and plentifully. The Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 brought with it fame and recognition from the scientific community and Irène was awarded a professorship at the Faculty of Science.

Irène’s group pioneered research into radium nuclei that lead a separate group of German physicists to discover nuclear fission; the splitting of the nucleus itself and the vast amounts of energy emitted as a result.

Political views, ethics and values

Irène and Frederic had become increasingly aware of the growth of the fascist movement. They opposed its ideals and joined the Socialist Party in 1934, The Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes a year later and in 1936 actively supported republicans in the Spanish civil war. In the same year Irène was appointed Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research for the French government where she helped in founding the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

The Juliot-Curies had continued Pierre and Marie’s policy of publishing all of their work for the benefit of the global scientific community but afraid of the danger that might result should it be developed for military use they stopped. On October 30th 1939 they placed all of their documentation on nuclear fission into the vaults of the Académie des Sciences where it remained until 1949.

Irène’s political career continued after the war and she became a commissioner in the Commissariat à l'énergie Atomique. However, she still found time for scientific work and in 1946 Irène became director of her mother’s beloved Institut du Radium, Radium Institute.

Irène became actively involved in promoting women’s education, serving on the National Committee of the Union of French Women (Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises) and the World Peace Council. Both Irène and Frederic were awarded membership of France’s Legion d’honneur; Irène as an officer and Frederic as a commissioner, recognising his earlier work for the resistance.

Health problems and death

During World War II Irène contracted tuberculosis and was forced to spend the next few years convalescing in Switzerland. Concern for her own health together with the anguish of leaving her husband and children in occupied France was hard to bear and she did make several dangerous visits back to France, enduring detention by German troops at the Swiss border on more than one occasion. Finally, in 1944 Irène judged it too dangerous for her family to remain in France and she took her children back to Switzerland.

The years of working so closely with such deadly materials finally caught up with Irène and she was diagnosed with leukemia. She had been accidentally exposed to polonium when a sealed capsule of the element exploded on her laboratory bench in 1946. Treatment with antibiotics and a series of operations did relieve her suffering temporarily but her condition continued to deteriorate. Despite this Irène continued to work and in 1955 drew up plans for new physics laboratories at the Universitie d’Orsay, South of Paris.

In 1956, after a final convalescent period in the French Alps Irène was admitted to the Curie hospital in Paris where she died on March 17 at the age of 58 from leukemia.[2]


Joliot-Curie's daughter, Hélène Langevin-Joliot, is a respected nuclear physicist and a professor at the University of Paris, and her son, Pierre Joliot, is a noted biochemist at the CNRS.


  1. ^ Nobel Laureates Facts
  2. ^ RSC Chemistry World Polonium Q&A

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Irène_Joliot-Curie". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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