Women in Nuclear History: Irène Joliot-Curie

Here is the third installment of Women in Nuclear History with the amazing life of Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1957), who was a Nobel award winner like her mother and father.


  1. Irène Joliot-Curie was born on September 12, 1897, in Paris, France. She was the oldest daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie.
  2. Irène went through a rigorous education system that eventually culminated with a PhD related to alpha decay in polonium from the Sorbonne, Paris in 1925.
  3. During World War I she worked with her mother as a nurse radiographer helping to identify shrapnel wounds in soldiers. They moved their temporary medical facilities (so called “little Curies”) around the battleground sites. Irène received a military medal for her assistance in X-ray facilities in France and Belgium.
  4. Irène worked at the Radium Institute, with her mother, teaching and doing research. Since 1924 she started working with Frédéric Joliot, a young chemical engineer whom she later wed in 1926. They helped each other scientifically and supported each other in real life.
  5. Irène, together with Frédéric Joliot, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for discovery of induced (artificial) radioactivity. This was an alchemist’s dream of turning one element into another. They did it by bombarding the stable element of aluminum with alpha particles, producing unstable phosphorus and a neutron. Thanks to their discovery of artificial radioactivity radioactive materials could be created quickly and cheaply and used for medical and scientific applications. Irène Joliot-Curie was awarded a professorship at the Faculty of Science.
  6. Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie calculated the accurate mass of a neutron. They were also very close to the discovery of positron (anti-electron), but they failed to interpret it correctly. They also contributed to the fission research but sealed their discoveries in the vault of the French Academy of Science since they did not want their work to be used for building the bomb.
  7. Joliot-Curies were instrumental in creating the first French nuclear reactor in 1948 and establishing the French peaceful nuclear energy program. They were in charge of the CEA (Atomic Energy Commission): Irène as a commissioner and Frédéric as the director of the CEA. Their legacy is still very strong in France, since approximately 75% of energy in France comes from nuclear power.
  8. Irène is known for supporting women causes, girls’ education and she also was a strong advocate for peace. She also participated in the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace and in many engagements for women causes.
  9. She worked herself to death. She died from leukemia ten years following an accident of exposure to radioactive polonium in her laboratory. She was only 58 years old.
  10. Both children of the Joliot-Curies, Hélène (Langevin-Joliot) and Pierre Joliot were prominent scientists. Hélène is a nuclear physicist, while Pierre is a biochemist. When I wrote this piece (Dec. 2022) they both are still alive.