Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Irène Joliot-Curie

All the elements for success

Name: Irène Joliot-Curie
Nationality: French
Lived: 1897-1956
Fields: Chemistry – radioactivity and nuclear physics
Claim to fame: Nobel Prize for the generation of artificial radiation from stable elements

The daughter of two of the most famous scientists of all time, Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) emerged from the shadow of her parents‘ accomplishments to find success in her own right. Teaming up with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, she broke new ground in the study of radioactivity and nuclear physics.

Radioactivity in the blood

Irène Curie was born on 12 September 1897, a few months before her parents Pierre and Marie discovered radium. Rather than sending their children for formal schooling, the Curies and their friends banded together to form ‘The Co-operative’, which brought together many of France’s foremost academics to teach each other’s children. Irène was taught in this manner until 1912 when she went to the Collège Sévigné to take her baccalaureate. In 1914, she enrolled at the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Science, but her studies were soon interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.

In love and war

During the war, Irène served as a nurse radiographer, working with her mother in mobile field hospitals. They used primitive X-ray equipment, made possible by the work of Pierre and Marie Curie. These machines were a huge help to doctors in locating shrapnel in wounded soldiers, but exposed both Irène and her mother to large doses of radiation.
As an uneasy peace broke out across Europe, Irène returned to Paris and her studies. Her doctoral thesis, completed in 1925, focused on the alpha rays of polonium, the second element discovered by her parents. Irène carried out her research at the Radium Institute (now the Curie Institute), founded by her mother. It was here that she met a young scientist named Frédéric Joliot who said of Irène: “With her cold appearance, her forgetting to say hello, she didn‘t always create sympathy around her at the laboratory. In observing her, I discovered in this young woman, that others saw as a little brutish, an extraordinary, poetic and sensitive being.” The pair married in 1926. The following year, their daughter Hélène was born, and in 1932 they had a son, Pierre.

A nuclear alliance

The Joliot-Curies forged a strong partnership both inside and out of the research laboratory. They worked together on natural and artificial radioactivity, transmutation of elements and nuclear physics. Their greatest breakthrough came in 1934 when the couple managed to generate the first artificial radioactivity from stable elements. This was achieved by using alpha particles to bombard aluminium, magnesium and boron, in separate experiments. From the aluminium, they were able to produce radioactive phosphorus, from the boron, a radioactive form of nitrogen, and from the magnesium, silicon. This work led to Irène and Frédéric being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Atomic woman

Already chair of nuclear physics at the Sorbonne, Irène was made a professor in the Faculty of Science in 1937. She continued to work on the actions of neutrons on the heavy elements, making advances that were to prove an important step in the discovery of nuclear fission.
At the same time, she had developed an interest in politics, having been appointed Under-secretary of State for Scientific Research in 1936. In particular, Irène was devoted to furthering the advancement of women both socially and educationally. She was a member of the National Committee of the French Women’s Union and of the World Peace Council.

A Swiss interlude

In 1939, war broke out once again. Fearing the impact of their work falling into the wrong hands, the Joliot-Curies locked away their research on nuclear fission  in the vaults of the Académie des Sciences, where it remained for a decade.
During World War II, Irène fell ill with tuberculosis and was forced to go to Switzerland to convalesce, leaving her family in Paris. Missing them dreadfully, she risked the dangerous journey to France several times in order to see them. More than once this meant detention by German troops at the border.
After the war, Irène was made director of the Radium Institute and Commissioner for Atomic Energy in 1946. In this latter role, she contributed to the construction of the first French atomic pile (nuclear reactor) in 1948, and also worked out the plans for a large centre for nuclear physics at Orsay. Irène never saw the completion of this project as, on 17 March 1956, she died from leukaemia, caused by exposure to radioactive elements in the course of her work.

Scientific achievements

The work done by Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie on synthesising new radioactive elements built on the discoveries made by Irène’s parents and broke remarkable new ground. Prior to this, no one had ever succeeded in creating artificial radioactive materials and the advance meant that radioactive materials, increasingly used in medicine, could be produced quickly, cheaply and in large quantities. The Joliot-Curies were rewarded for their efforts with the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935.
Irène’s later work on nuclear particles represented an important step towards the achievement of nuclear fission. She was instrumental in the establishment of France’s first nuclear reactor and a centre for nuclear physics. Amongst countless accolades, Irène was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1939.