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Irène Joliot-Curie: Pioneer in Radiochemistry

March 28, 2023 by Claire Turvill

Irène Joliot-Curie was the second woman to receive the Noble Prize in Chemistry. Her work with radioactive isotopes profoundly impacted the scientific and medical communities.

Irène Joliot-Curie, born on September 12, 1897, in Paris, was a French physicist and chemist who significantly contributed to the study of radiochemistry. From an early age, her parents, Marie and Pierre Curie exposed her to the world of science and fostered her interest in the field.


Irène Joliot-Curie.

Irène Joliot-Curie. Image used courtesy of Scientific Women

STEM Education

It quickly became clear at a young age that Joliot-Curie had an interest and talent in mathematics. Her mother and other notable French scholars formed “The Cooperative,” a private education program for the scholars’ children, to ensure the children received a proper formal education.

Joliot-Curie studied in this program for about two years; even her summers were filled with a rigorous education. In 1914, she attended high school at College Sevigne in Paris, returning to a more standard education system. 

During World War I, Joliot-Curie worked as her mother’s assistant in the mobile field hospitals, operating the X-ray machines her mother had developed. During this time, Joliot-Curie began to appreciate the practical applications of science and how it could be used to help people in need. Using the machines allowed field surgeons to locate bits of shrapnel in wounded soldiers.

After the war, Joliot-Curie returned to Paris first to complete her baccalaureate degree at the Sorbonne and then to study chemistry at her parents’ Radium Institute. There, she wrote her doctoral thesis on the alpha decay of polonium, earning her Ph.D. in 1925.


Nobel Prize Recipient

Joliot-Curie met her husband, Frederic Joliot, at the Radium Institute when her mother asked her to train the new chemical engineer. They married in 1926 and quickly became research partners. The two began working together to study atomic nuclei, successfully identifying the positron and neutron of an atom and helping shape the current model of atoms


Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Image used courtesy of The Nobel Prize

However, they initially misinterpreted their results, and these identifications were later credited to Carl David Anderson and James Chadwick.

They were successful in being the first to calculate the mass of the neutron, which they did in 1933.

Together, they were intent on making a name for themselves in the scientific world. In 1934, they successfully discovered that radioactive elements could be artificially produced from stable elements by exposing aluminum foil to alpha particles. The removal of the radioactive source revealed that the aluminum had become radioactive, which had a momentous influence on the field of radiochemistry. This breakthrough prompted extensive exploration of radioisotopes and their functional uses, particularly in medicine. Radioisotopes are now a staple in biomedical research and cancer treatment.

For their discovery, the Joliot-Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, making Irène Joliot-Curie the second woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, after her mother. 

The discovery proved that radioactive isotopes could be made relatively inexpensively, eliminating the need for separating naturally occurring radioactive isotopes from their ores, a difficult and expensive task. It also solidified the couple’s place in scientific history.


Nuclear Leader

Joliot-Curie continued her work in radiochemistry, pioneering research into radium nuclei. This research led a group of German physicists, separate from her group, to discover nuclear fission–the splitting of the nucleus. 

However, despite not discovering nuclear fission herself, Joliot-Curie used the concept to help develop the first French nuclear reactor in partnership with her husband and other scientists.

Thanks to her work at the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in France, France’s current electricity generation is 75% sourced from nuclear energy.

In 1936, years before women could vote in France, Joliot-Curie was appointed Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research. She was also a member of the Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises (National Council of French Women) and the World Peace Council. She advocated for women’s education while also protesting fascism and Nazism.

She and her husband locked away their documentation on nuclear fission at the beginning of World War II for fear of what would happen if it ended up in the wrong hands.

In 1946, she took over as the director of the Radium Institute. 


Radiation Exposure

Despite her research's impact on the scientific community, so many years working closely with radioactive materials caused her to develop leukemia. Her mother and husband also died from illnesses attributed to radiation exposure. 

The Joliot-Curie’s children, Hélène and Pierre, continued their family’s legacy by becoming nuclear physicists and biochemists, respectively.