Irène Joliot-Curie

Lillian Mecum
February 9, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Irène Joliot-Curie in 1921, accepting an honorary degree at the University of Pennsylvania on the behalf of her mother Marie Curie. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As the daughter of groundbreaking female nuclear scientist Marie Curie, Irène Joliot- Curie's discoveries and contributions to the world of nuclear scientist often lie in the shadow of her mother's legacy (see Fig. 1). However, academics of Joliot-Curie recognize that her own forays into the subject made future strides in the field possible.

Early Life

Joliot-Curie was born on September 12, 1897 in Paris to her parents Pierre and Marie Curie. Her mother quickly realized Joliot-Curie's young mathematical abilities, and made efforts to expose her the teachings of other prominent French academics in her peer group. [1] Joliot-Curie continued her studies at the Faculty of Science in Paris from 1912 to 1914, then served as a nurse radiographer during World War I. [2] She then earned her Doctor of Science in 1925 with a thesis on polonium alpha rays. In that year, she also met her husband Frédéric Joliot in Marie Curie's lab, and shortly thereafter, they began to pursue joint scientific work. [2,3]

Scientific Works

Fig. 2:Irène Joliot-Curie and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Joliot-Curie's joint experiments with her husband identified the existence of the positron and neutron. However, they did not identify the significance of these discoveries, which were later claimed by James Chadwick and Carl David Anderson. [4] In 1934, the pair built upon Marie and Pierre Curie's work of isolating naturally occurring radioactive elements (see Fig. 2), and successfully discovered a way for radioactive materials to be created cheaply and in vast quantities. [5] They irradiated natural, stable isotopes of boron, aluminum, and magnesium with alpha particles to yield radioactive isotopes of nitrogen, phosphorus, and aluminum. [4] Their synthesis of these radioactive isotopes earned Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie a joint Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. With newfound recognition, Irène became a professor at the Faculty of Science.

Later Life

Following her reception of the Nobel Prize, Joliot-Curie devoted her time to raising two children and to social activism - she joined the Socialist Party in the mid 1930s and was also involved in promoting women's rights in education with the World Peace Council. [1] Joliot-Curie also continued to lead a research group that investigated radium nuclei, which later allowed German researchers Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassman to discover nuclear fission. Eventually, Joliot-Curie was diagnosed with leukemia as she had been exposed to polonium in her lab in 1946. She continued to work as her condition deteriorated, in spite of treatment. Joliot-Curie ultimately passed away from the disease at age 58 in the Curie hospital in Paris. [2]

© Lillian Mecum. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] N. Loriot, Irène Joliot-Curie (Presses de la Renaissance, 1991).

[2] Z. H. Laberig-Frolova, "Irene Joliot-Curie," Atomic Energy 13, 867 (1963) [Atomnaya Energiya 13, 265 (1962)].

[3] P. Biquard, Frédéric Joliot-Curie; the man and his theories (Souvenir Press, 1966).

[4] C. Bernardini and L. Bonolis, Enrico Fermi: His Work and Legacy (Springer, 2004).

[5] N. Pasachoff, Marie Curie: And the Science of Radioactivity (Oxford University Press, 1997).