Irène Joliot-Curie: Daughter of Nuclear Science

By Jaime Seltzer

Irène Joliot-Curie’s mother and father were Marie and Pierre Curie, a Polish and French husband and wife team already famous for their joint research on radioactivity. (I am sure that her parents and the world as a whole placed no pressure on her to be dazzlingly clever.)

When Irène began showing signs of incredible mathematical skills (whew!), her parents decided they would invent their own school to teach her. They got together with a bunch of other brilliant scientists with equally brilliant children and formed a kind of home-school in which a different parent would teach the group at different times. In the modern spirit of the time, this means Irène was taught Chinese, cutting-edge science, sculpture and athletics from these experts.

She was also deeply involved in women’s rights: she was a member of the Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises, and of the World Peace Council.

During World War I, Irène briefly ceased her doctoral studies in order to do X-rays for injured soldiers. Eventually, however, Irène returned to the University of Paris to complete her long-delayed doctorate. In her last year at school, she was asked to tutor Frédéric Joliot in laboratory techniques, and romance blossomed among the test tubes. The two began the sort of romantic and intellectual partnership that Irène had observed at the knee of her own mother and father.

Up until that moment, the identity of an element of the periodic table was ineffable so far as science was concerned. If you had aluminum atoms, they would forever be aluminum atoms. Even if aluminum atoms reacted with oxygen atoms to make the white powder aluminum oxide, it could react again to produce pure aluminum and oxygen gas once more. This was the nature of chemistry as it was understood at the time: that nothing is created and nothing is destroyed.

Irène and her new husband Frédéric, however, decided scientific laws were for breaking. They took radioactive particles and aimed them so that they would hit larger particles (such as atoms of aluminum). Since atoms are not solid spheres, but made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, this collision could cause one of the protons or neutrons or both to pop off and go careening into the distance.

That meant the sample was no longer made of aluminum, because atoms are defined by their number of protons. Irène and Frédéric had changed one element into a totally different element, with all that new element’s properties. These particles were now called isotopes.

Irène Joliot Curie

Irène Joliot Curie in her lab, and in the Women in Science game.

Perhaps needless to say, they shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this mindblowing work, which must have sounded like some kind of magic trick to the public, but was just really, really awesome science.

If you’re following along with history, you’ve probably noted that Irène’s discovery in the mid-1930s might have an impact on a certain upcoming war, and you would be correct. Irène helped establish the first nuclear pile in France, pretty much because she was beginning to realize the incredible power of nuclear energy and nuclear radiation, and when it came to safety, she was the only one she trusted.

Irène Joliot-Curie was then appointed to all kinds of scientific counsels and headed up all sorts of committees. She was also deeply involved in women’s rights: she was a member of the Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises, and of the World Peace Council.

By the mid-1950s, Irène succumbed to leukemia at age 58, caused by her work with radioactive particles. She was survived by her husband and her two children, Hélène and Pierre; Hélène became a famous physicist, Pierre a famous biologist. The Curies have won more Nobel Prizes than any other family.

Irène Joliot-Curie. (2015, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 18, 2015, from
Irene Joliot-Curie. (2015). In Famous Scientists: The Art of Genius. Retrieved August 18, 2015, from
Joliot-Curie, Irène.(2008). In Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Retrieved August 18, 2015 from

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  1. Pingback: Rose Dieng-Kuntz: knowledge webs and artificial intelligence | Luana Games

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