Profile: Iréne Joliot-Curie

Iréne Curie was born on September 12, 1897 in Paris, France to Marie and Pierre Curie. She was the oldest of two, her younger sister Eve being born in 1904. Iréne grew up to be a bright, smart, and quick young woman.

Marie and Pierre would be awarded the 1903 Nobel prize in physics alongside Henri Bacquerel. This would launch them into notoriety and critique – often a difficult line to balance. The Curies worked to keep their children out of the spotlight as they grew up.

In 1906, Marie, Iréne, and Eve suffered a loss as Pierre tragically passed away in an automobile accident. Then, it was the small family of the three Curies, and Pierre’s father Eugene.

Constantly seeking attention and approval from her mother, Iréne grew close with Eugene Curie.He was a confidant, a friend, and a father figure. He introduced her to Victor Hugo, one of his favorite authors during their time, feeding an already eager mind. Eugene died in 1910, when Iréne was 12 years of age.

During this time, Marie Curie was filling in her husband’s instructing position at The Sorbonne. After her father in law passed away, she took over raising her two children, Iréne age 12 and Eve, age 6.

Iréne Curie’s early education is highlighted by her presence in an informal class of other Sorbonne professors’ children. Marie Curie and her associates at  the Sorbonne found that education for children in Paris was lacking. They decided to teach each others children in their own subjects, providing Irene and a handful of other children instruction in many subjects including chemistry and physics. These lessons would keep Iréne Curie occupied for two years (1910-1912).

Irene and Marie.1

A young Iréne and Marie⁸. 

During this time, Marie Curie was struggling to establish her reputation in the scientific world despite her accomplishments. Scandal after scandal involving her personal life made headlines. She was turned down for open chair positions in academia that would be given to arguably, less notable and less experienced male counterparts. All while teaching, and raising two children as a single parent. The paparazzi was known for bother the Curies, once surrounding Iréne and Eve at home while Marie was away attending a conference.

Marie Curie would receive another Nobel prize in chemistry for her work with radium and polonium in 1911. Iréne traveled to Stockholm with her mother and her aunt Bronya to witness the ceremony.

Iréne would also get the chance to meet her mother’s close associate, Albert Einstein, then a young professor in Prague. Einstein is known to have been a supporter of Madame Curie and her family through thick and thin, as shown in this letter sent in 1911.

Iréne’s informal education ended in 1912, and Iréne Curie went to finish her baccalaureate. She took classes at the Collège Sévigné when she was in Paris, and studied while she traveled abroad. She finished her baccalaureate education in 1914 when World War I began.

World War I

It is commonly known that Iréne Curie would help her mother with the radiation wagons on battlefields. During Marie’s last years of life, she was dedicated to helping the community and boosting the Institut du Radium. The Insitut du Radium was created in 1909 and funded by The Sorbonne and Pasteur University. It was split into two labs, one of which was lead by Marie Curie. The Institut met many challenges while trying to establish itself, including both world wars.

The wagons that Iréne and Marie would cart around the battlefield operated as mobile X-ray machines. Marie appealed unyieldingly to the national war department and the Red Cross to fund the wagons; she would often be seen using them on the battlefield with a young Iréne. The wagons were nicknamed petit Curie – “little Curie”.

When not assisting her mother, Iréne was taking nursing classes alongside her required classes at The Sorbonne. She was soon teaching other willing women about radiology, anatomy, and how to operate a petit Curie.

The Curies and their fleet of X-ray wagons saved numerous lives during Germany’s invasion of France in World War I. Iréne would receive a war medal for her efforts after armistice was decreed.  

Iréne was 21 when the war ended in 1918. She quickly turned her attention fully to her classes and research at the Institut.

It is reported that some fellow students of Iréne did not take well to her. Whether it was due to any perceived nepotism or her quick and sometimes off-putting mind, Iréne Curie was slowly growing into the spotlight her mother had tried to keep her away from as a child.

All of this didn’t affect the impression Iréne made on a new lab assistant Marie asked her to train in the lab. Frédéric Joliot had just graduated first in his class from the Ecole de Physique et de Chimie Industrielle in engineering. After a stint of military service, he was hired as a lab assistant in the Curie lab in 1925.

That same year, Iréne Curie presented her doctorate research on polonium, an element that Mdme. Curie had identified 27 years earlier.

In 1926, Iréne and Frédéric married. Frédéric was simultaneously learning lab techniques from Iréne, instructing at the Ecole de Physique, and studying to earn is licence es sciences.

For the next years, Iréne and Frédéric Joliot-Curie would research artificial radiation. or human created radioactivity. This was achieved by exposing stable substances to radioactive substances such as alpha rays (two protons, two neutrons), beta rays (electrons or positrons), or gamma rays (energetic photons)¹. The Joliot-Curies demonstrated that radioactivity can be spread from an initial to a final point.

irene and frederic.1

Iréne and Frederic in the lab⁸. 

Along with artificial radioactivity, the Joliot-Curie’s explored more about nuclei and collisions. Some of their research could have led to more recognition if they interpreted it further. Iréne and Frédéric’s observations led to their conclusion that protons were being “knocked out” of the beryllium sample by the alpha particles they were shooting at it.

This was a misinterpretation, at the time the nucleus of a beryllium atom was assumed to consist of two alpha particles, one proton and one electron. The neutron had not been confirmed yet, but it had been hypothesized by Sir Ernest Rutherford in 1920⁴.  

It wasn’t until the Joliot-Curies published their work that James Chadwick, a former student of Rutherford could find their mistakes, correct them, and publish the experimentally supported theory³. They did however calculate the mass of a neutron correctly.  

Despite this, the Joliot-Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935 for their work in artificial radiation. Being able to reign in the power of radioactivity gave its benefits in medicine, but also presented an unknown threat to society.

Mme. Marie Curie would not witness her family’s achievement. In 1934, the elder Curie would leave her lab early in the day citing poor health. She would pass away in July of 1934, survived by Iréne, Frédéric, their children Helene and Pierre, and the younger Curie Eve.

By 1937, murmurs of a rising force in Germany were spreading around Europe. The Joliot-Curies moved to a southwest suburb of Paris near the Parc de Sceaux. Frédéric was teaching at the College de France and Iréne was home taking care of the two children. They joined the national socialist party in 1934, worked with local leadership and joined a local anti-fascist organization in the wake of the rise of Nazi Germany. They were active within both the scientific and political communities.

Initially adopting Marie and Pierre’s idea of publishing everything, Iréne and Frédéric figured they had to change the plan. Publishing research on radiation could propose a danger to the public, so the Joliot-Curies kept writing but kept itto themselves.

The Joliot-Curies decided to stay in France despite the early impending threat of Nazi Germany.

During this time, they made many developments in radiation and its applications to biology. In 1939, Frédéric, accompanied by Lacassagne, observed the effects of radiation and tracing metabolism in the thyroid. Radiation therapy is known to help reduce and rid a patient of cancerous growth.

World War II officially came to a beginning that year, and its impact hit all disciplines of life including science. Famed scientist and friend of the Curie family, Paul Lengevin, was arrested by Nazis in 1940 for his work with the resistance².

Frédéric condemned his imprisonment. He also spoke out against the execution of Jacques Solomon on May 3rd, 1942. Solomon was a scientist and human rights advocate that was incredibly active within the french resistance against nazism.This is a crucial intersection of science and political influence – to try and separate the two disciplines would do both a disservice.

After the death of Jacques Solomon, Frederic Joliot worked in secret with the french resistance to store explosives in his lab and stockroom. He also became a member of the French Communist Party in 1942.

Iréne Curie took Helene and Pierre to Switzerland in 1944, escaping german occupation. Frédéric stayed behind, and helped with the liberation of Paris in August later that year. He was appointed director of the Centre National de la Recherce Scientifique and was elected into the Academie des Sciences.

Iréne was appointed as commissioner and as the director of the Insitut in 1946. She would put her efforts into researching the detection and composition of uranium.

Frédéric was working on establishing the first french nuclear reactor, zero, oxyde d’uranium, eau lourde (ZOE), which launched in 1948⁵. By this time, the depth of destruction that nuclear power could achieve was performed. Nations in power were cautious about the role that nuclear weapons and radioactivity had now began in the world.

By the 1950’s Iréne’s health was declining. She suffered from tuberculosis, and would often travel to Switzerland for her health. In 1955, Iréne drew up plans for a research laboratory in the University D’Orsay that could support and operate large particle accelerators. Ones larger than those they had at the Institut. She wouldn’t have the chance to see these through.

In 1956, Iréne Curie died of leukemia at the age of 59. She had been exposed to radiation for the majority of her life. Her body could only take so much until it started to fail.  

After Iréne’s death, Frédéric would fill her vacant seat as a professor at the university of Paris while continuing his instruction at the College des France. He would see the establishment of Iréne’s research laboratory at the Orsay in 1958 and would oversee the beginning of its research⁵ . Frédéric Joliot-Curie died later that year.


References (accessed 3-4 Mar 2019)

  1. “Artificial Radioactivity”
  2. Bok, J., Kounelis, C. “Paul Langevin (1872-1946): From Montmarte to the Pantheon: the Paris Journey of an Exceptional Physicist” Europhysicsnews. Vol. 38 (19-21)
  3. Chadwick, James “The Existence of a Neutron” 1 June 1932. Royal Society Publishing
  4. Ernest Rutherford. Purdue University.
  5. Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie: French Chemist. Encyclopedia Britannica. Last updated 18 Nov 2016
  6. Irene Joliot-Curie. Atomic Heritage Foundation. 2019
  7. Irene Joliot-Curie. Famous Scientists. 9 Oct 2015
  8. “Jean-Frederic Joliot and Irene Curie: A Second Generation of Curies”. American Institute for Physics. Marie Curie and The Science of Radioactivity. 2000. Online exhibit 
  9. “Paris Liberated” editors. A&E Television Networks, History. Last updated 21 August 2018.
  10. Racine, N. “Solomon, Jacques”. Le Maitron: Dictionaire Biographique Fusilles, Guillotines, Executes, Massacres 1940 – 1944.
  11. “Radioactivity: Alpha Beta Gamma Rays”

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