Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot

Irène Joliot-Curie

Irène Joliot-Curie.

Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) had the unusual experience of attending for two years in her childhood a special school that emphasized science, organized by her mother, Marie Curie, and Marie’s scientific friends for their own children. Irène was still a teenager when she worked with her Nobel Prize–winning mother in the radiography corps during World War I. After the war she assisted her mother at the Radium Institute in Paris, meanwhile completing her doctorate. She married Frédéric Joliot (1900–1958), a young physicist who had come to work with her mother.

The Joliot-Curies won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 for their artificial creation of new radioactive elements by bombardment of alpha particles (helium nuclei, He2+) on various light elements. They correctly interpreted the continued positron emission that occurred after bombardment had ceased as evidence that "radioactive isotopes" of known elements had been created. These isotopes rapidly became important tools in biomedical research and in the treatment of cancer.

Frédéric Joliot
Frédéric Joliot. Both photos courtesy Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, Department of Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library.

The Joliot-Curies were the parents of a boy and a girl, Pierre and Helene, both of whom became scientists—thus continuing a famous scientific dynasty. Irène and Frédéric died in Paris, two years apart.

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