Irene Joliot-Curie was born in Paris, France, on 12 September 1897. Her parents, Pierre and Marie Curie, won the 1903 Nobel prize in physics for their work on radioactivity.
Marie again won the Nobel prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, making her the first person to win or share two Nobel prizes. She and American chemist Linus Pauling remain the only Nobel laureates in two fields.
Irene continued the family tradition, winning the 1935 Nobel prize in chemistry, which she shared with her husband, Frederic Joliot, for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.
Looking further into Irene’s life, it is evident that it took an outsized character such as her mother to overshadow her own extraordinary achievements.
Marie took charge of her daughter’s education when Irene was 12. She taught her physics and had her tutored in chemistry by Jean Baptiste Perrin, who in 1926 won the Nobel prize in physics. Mathematics instruction was provided by the renowned French physicist Paul Langevin.
After travelling extensively with her mother, Irene returned to Paris in 1913 to attend school at College Sevigne, but her lessons were interrupted in 1914 by the start of World War 1.
Marie recognised that her experience with x-rays could be used to save soldiers’ lives, so she went to work setting up field radiological centres near the front lines to assist battlefield surgeons. She directed the set-up of facilities at field hospitals and in mobile units in the first year of the war.
Irene, now 17, undertook a nursing course and began teaching radiology to nurses recruited by her mother to serve in the field units. She also served in battlefield hospitals herself, taking x-rays, and eventually took over running some of the centres and learnt how to repair the equipment.
After the war, Irene joined the Radium Institute, which her mother had founded in 1919. She also returned to school, studying mathematics and physics, and in 1925 received her doctorate degree for research into the alpha rays of polonium, one of the radioactive elements discovered by her parents.
At the institute she met Frederic Joliot, an engineering graduate. They were married in 1926 and joined their surnames as Joliot-Curie
An article published by the Royal Society of Chemistry describes how the couple continued to research polonium, bombarding elements with alpha particles emitted from the material.
This led to the discovery that radioactive elements can be artificially produced from stable elements. They exposed aluminium foil to alpha particles and found that when the radioactive source was removed, the aluminium had become radioactive.
It was this research that won them their Nobel prize.
In 1936 Irene served in the French cabinet as undersecretary of state for scientific research.
From 1941 to 1943, as the World War II raged, Irene battled tuberculosis and went to Switzerland to convalesce, leaving her husband and their two young children in occupied France. Attempts to visit them on a few occasions resulted in her being detained by German border guards.
She was able to bring the children to Switzerland, but her husband remained in France. Finally, after months of not hearing from Frederic, she was able to reunite her family in Switzerland in 1944.
After the war, she took over as director of the Radium Institute, in 1947, and served as a member of the French Atomic Energy Commission from 1946 to 1951.
She was a vocal advocate for women’s rights and also campaigned for anti-war causes. In 1956 she was admitted to the Curie hospital in Paris, where she died on 17 March, from leukemia, caused by years of radiation exposure, in much the same way as her mother had died.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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