Certainly the Curies were a talented family, mostly when it came to physics and chemistry, with five Nobel Prizes between them, not including the Nobel Prize for Peace awarded to Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr., the son-in-law who was married to Marie and Pierre's second daughter. In truth Marie and Pierre Curie's daughter Irène would have been famous in her own right, had it not been for the huge reputation of her mother and father.  But then very likely she would never studied physics at all if the Curies were not her parents. She married a physicist, Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie (he added Curie to his name to keep the family name alive since the Curies had no male offspring- although he signed their joint scientific papers Frédéric Joliot,) and with him won one of the Curie's five Nobel Prizes.

Irène was born in Paris in September of 1897 and was essentially home schooled, the Curies even forming a cooperative with other scientists to teach the children of the group.  After two years of instruction in the cooperative, Irène enrolled at the Collège Sévigné (a private school) and then the University of Paris (Sorbonne).  Her studies were interrupted by the onset of World War I in 1914.  She then joined her mother in developing wartime radiological labs.

After the war Irène joined the Radium Institute. She finished her doctorate in 1925, with a study of Polonium, an element discovered by her parents.  In 1924, she was assigned to teach radiological technique to a young scientist, Jean Frédéric Joliot, and the couple were married in 1926. Initially they overlooked the significance of some of their earlier research, although they laid the groundwork for others to build on.  In 1934 they pioneered in the transmutation of elements, for which they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935, only the year after their discovery.  This led Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Friedrich Wilhelm "Fritz" Strassmann to develop the basis of chain reaction, eventually leading to the atomic bomb (for which Meitner received no credit in large part because she had Jewish parents.)

The Joliot-Curies were horrified about the military applications of their work and had the family notes sealed in a file of the French Academy of Sciences from 1939-1949. By then the cat had been let out of the bag and there was no reason to surpress the data. Politically, the Joliet- Curies were Socialists, with Frédéric having joined the French Communist Party in 1942. His membership undercut her appointment as Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research in the French Government, but she was able to found the Centre national de la recherche scientifique during her tenure.

Like her mother, Irène had been heavily exposed to radiation, including a Polonium explosion in her lab and the war years of working at the radiological labs.  She developed Leukemia and died at the age of 58 in 1956.  The Joliet-Curies had two children, a daughter, Hélène, who became a physicist, and a son, Pierre, who became a biochemist. They are both still alive.  

Internet References:

Irène Joliot-Curie http://www.nuclearfiles.org/...

Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie http://www.britannica.com/...

Irène Joliot-Curie http://www.nobelprize.org/...

Irène Joliot-Curie http://en.wikipedia.org/...

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat May 11, 2013 at 11:56 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, and Community Spotlight.

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