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Women Who Changed the World Through Science & Engineering: Irène Joliot-Curie

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Irène Joliot-Curie — Chemist and physicist

Shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband Frédéric Joliot for discovering that radioactivity could be artificially produced.

You’ve heard of the achievements of Nobel Prize-winning scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. Now discover their brilliant scientist-daughter Irène Joliot-Curie who would also later earn the Nobel Prize based on groundbreaking research in radioactivity!  Born in 1897 in Paris, Irène, always a intellectually sharp and curious child,  began working as her mother’s assistant in the Radium Institute in Paris shortly after graduating from secondary school. In 1925 she received her Doctor of Science degree, having done her thesis on the alpha rays of polonium (the first of the two radioactive elements her mother had discovered 27 years earlier).  At the Radium Institute, Irène met scientist Frédéric Joliot, her future husband and research partner. They married in 1926 and would soon make science history together in nuclear physics.

Why She’s Important:  Irène, working with Frédéric Joliot, was the first to discover artificial, or synthetic, radioactivity.  In the basement lab of the Radium Institute they bombarded stable chemical elements (boron, aluminum, and magnesium) with alpha particles, demonstrating in the end that normal chemical elements could be transformed into radioactive ones through human intervention. Thanks to their discovery, artificially radioactive atoms could now be prepared quickly, relatively inexpensively and in abundance, thereby opening the way to important progress in nuclear physics and medicine. The discovery earned Irène and Frédéric the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.

Other Achievements: Shortly after her fame from the Nobel Prize, Irene was awarded a professorship at the Faculty of Science in Paris, and later was named director of the Radium Institute.  In 1938 her research on the action of neutrons on the heavy elements was an important step in the discovery of uranium fission. Among her other numerous achievements, she played a key role in working out the plans for France’s large new center for nuclear physics at Orsay, served in the French Cabinet as Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research, and became a prominent proponent for the social and intellectual advancement of women.

Education:  For a few years of her childhood Irene was educated by her mother, Marie Curie, but Irene later completed her studies at the University of Paris. Beginning in 1918 she assisted her mother at the Institute of Radium of the University of Paris while studying for her own doctoral degree, receiving that degree in 1925.

In Her Own Words: When her husband Frédéric happily exclaimed to her one day that his cloud chamber (a laboratory device he used for his work on uranium fission) was “the most beautiful phenomenon in the world,” Irene (who was by then the mother of two children) mildly corrected him by saying: Yes, my dear, it would be the most beautiful phenomenon in the world–if it were not for childbirth.”

However, the years of working so closely with harmful radioactive materials finally took their toll on Irene. She was later diagnosed with leukemia (similar to her mother). In 1946, Irene had been accidentally exposed to polonium when a sealed capsule of the element exploded on her laboratory bench. Treatment with antibiotics and a series of operations did relieve her suffering temporarily but her condition continued to deteriorate.  She died in 1956 in Paris. The two children of Irene and her husband — Hélène and Pierre — would also go on to become greatly recognized scientists.

For more exciting role models in science and engineering, visit the USA Science & Engineering Festival www.usasciencefestival.org