Irène Joliot-Curie

(b. Sept. 12, 1897, Paris, France-d. March 17, 1956, Paris)

The French physical chemist Irène Joliot-Curie was awarded, with her husband, the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of new radioactive isotopes prepared artificially. She was the daughter of Nobel Prize winners Pierre and Marie Curie.

Irène Curie from 1912 to 1914 prepared for her baccalauréat at the Collège Sévigné and in 1918 became her mother’s assistant at the Institut du Radium of the University of Paris. In 1925 she presented her doctoral thesis on the alpha rays of polonium. In the same year she met Frédéric Joliot in her mother’s laboratory; they were married the following year (on Oct. 9, 1926). She was to find in him a mate who shared her interest in science, sports, humanism, and the arts. He learned laboratory techniques under Irène’s guidance, and beginning in 1928 they signed their scientific work jointly.

In the course of their researches they bombarded boron, aluminum, and magnesium with alpha particles; and they obtained radioactive isotopes of elements not ordinarily radioactive, namely, nitrogen, phosphorus, and aluminum. These discoveries revealed the possibility of using artificially produced radioactive isotopes to follow chemical changes and physiological processes, and such applications were soon successful; the absorption of radioiodine by the thyroid gland was detected, and the course of radiophosphorus (in the form of phosphates) was traced in the metabolism of the organism.

The production of these unstable atomic nuclei afforded further means for the observation of changes in the atom as these nuclei broke down. The Joliot-Curies observed also the production of neutrons and positive electrons in the changes that they studied; and their discovery of artificial radioactive isotopes constituted an important step toward the solution of the problem of releasing the energy of the atom, since the method of Enrico Fermi, using neutrons instead of alpha particles for the bombardments which led to the fission of uranium, was an extension of the method developed by the Joliot-Curies for producing radioelements artificially.

In 1935 Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the synthesis of new radioactive isotopes. The Joliot-Curies then moved into a home at the edge of the Parc de Sceaux. They left it only for visits to their house in Brittany at Pointe de l’Arcouest, where university families had been meeting together since the time of Marie Curie.

In 1937, Frédéric having been appointed professor at the Collège de France, Irène then devoted her time largely to the upbringing of their children, Hélène and Pierre. But both she and Frédéric had a lofty idea of their human and social responsibilities. They had joined the Socialist Party in 1934 and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals) in 1935.

They also took a stand in 1936 on the side of Republican Spain. Irène was one of three women to participate in the Popular Front government of 1936. As undersecretary of state for scientific research, she helped to lay the foundations, with Jean Perrin, for what would later become the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Centre for Scientific Research).

Anxiety resulting from the rise of Nazism and the awareness of the dangers that could result from the application of chain reactions led them to cease publication. On Oct. 30, 1939, they recorded the principle of nuclear reactors in a sealed envelope, which they deposited at the Académie des Sciences; it remained secret until 1949. Frédéric chose to remain in occupied France with his family and to make certain that the Germans who came into his laboratory could not use his work or his equipment, whose removal to Germany he prevented. The Joliot-Curies continued their research, notably in biology.

In May 1944, Irène and their children took refuge in Switzerland, while Frédéric remained in Paris under an assumed name. After 1945, when General Charles de Gaulle tapped Frédéric for his atomic expertise, Irène devoted her scientific experience and her abilities as an administrator to the acquisition of raw materials, the prospecting for uranium, and the construction of detection installations. In 1946 she was also appointed director of the Institut du Radium. After 1950 they devoted themselves to laboratory work, to teaching, and to various peace movements.

During the 1950s, following several operations, Irène’s health began to decline. In 1955 Irène drew up plans for the new nuclear physics laboratories at the Université d’Orsay, south of Paris, where teams of scientists could work with large particle accelerators under conditions less cramped than in the Parisian laboratories. Early in 1956 she was sent into the mountains to recuperate, but her condition did not improve. Wasted away by leukemia as her mother had been, she again entered the Curie Hospital, where she died in 1956.

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