Just about everyone has heard of Marie Curie and her contributions to science. But not so many have heard of her daughter. Irene Curie-Joliot was a tremendously successful scientist in her own right.
Born in Paris in 1897, Irene Curie was the daughter of already-famous Marie and Pierre Curie. Irene served as a nurse radiographer alongside her mother in WWI before finishing her doctorate in 1925 and marrying chemical engineer Frederic Joliot in 1926. The two of them collaborated in life and science until her death in 1956, sometimes working on separate projects, sometimes working together.
In 1935 Irene Curie-Joliot and Frederic Joliot won the nobel prize in chemistry for their work on synthesizing new radioactive elements. This was monumental in that they had managed to turn an element into something else, a feat out of the old myths of alchemy. They achieved it by bombarding naturally occurring elements with alpha particles, making it possible to achieve radioactive isotopes from lighter elements. This discovery was especially critical to nuclear medicine research.
Irene worked in research, as a lecturer, in politics, and as a mother. She started lecturing in 1932 and became a full Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1937. She and frederic had a daughter, Helene, and a son, Pierre, both highly regarded scientists in their own rights – Helene in nuclear physics, and Pierre in biochemistry.
Irene Curie-Joliot also worked to advance nuclear power in France, serving as a Commissioner for Atomic energy. Her efforts in this area led to the development of France’s first atomic pile and the many efficient plants that would follow. Fearing the weaponization of their work on nuclear fission and development of nuclear reactors, she and Frederic sealed their notes on that subject in the vaults of the French Academy of Sciences until 1949.
In addition to all those efforts, she was the Director of the Radium Institute, which was started by her parents, and she worked on improving education infrastructure in her field and served as France’s Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research starting in 1936. She was also a champion for women, both socially and academically. She served on the World Peace Council and Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises. The Jolie-Curies involvement with socialism and communism in the French resistance during WWII did cause them later troubles during the cold war. This could partially explain why they are so much less well-known than Irene’s parents.
While the Nobel Prize is arguably her biggest achievement, she received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and prestigious memberships to foreign academies and scientific societies, even serving as an Officer of the Legion of Honor.
After contracting tuberculosis during WWII and frequently convalescing in Switzerland, Irene succumbed to leukemia in 1956. If you would like to know more and can manage to find it anywhere (let me know if you do – none of the links I found worked!), PBS put out a film in their Women of Science series called Out from the Shadows: The Story of Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curie