Birth Date: 12 September 1897
Date of Death: 17 March 1956 (aged 58)
Place of Birth: Paris, France
Place of Death: Paris, France
Nationality: French
Occupation/Field of Study French chemist, recipient of the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry


KEYWORDS: Artificial radioactivity, Nuclear chemistry,  X-ray, Polonium, Alpha rays, Frédéric Joliot



A scientist who often found herself in the shadow of her parents, Marie and Pierre Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie earned all her awards and prizes because of her exceptional work and historically important research on radioactivity. Together with her husband Frédéric, Irène Joliot-Curie undertook several revolutionary experiments, which contributed to significant discoveries. They produced experimental evidence of positrons and neutrons, although they failed to understand it1 (p.133-134). The most significant scientific achievement of this dyad was the discovery of artificial radioactivity. The transformation of naturally stable elements into artificial radioactive ones opened the door to endless subsequent research in medicine, chemistry, and biology2 (p.50).

For a brief moment [Fred and Irène] had achieved the ancient alchemist’s dream, transmutation –changing one chemical element, aluminium, into another, phosphorous, then into silicon2 (p.49).

Just like her parents, Irène Joliot-Curie chose not to patent her discovery, recognising its importance and the potential that it had to offer.



Born on 12 September 1897 in Paris, Irène Curie was mostly known as the older of the two daughters of famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie. Growing up, she had the privilege of seeing her mother win two Nobel Prizes, the first in 1903, along with her husband, and the latter in 1911. Both her parents served as grandiose inspiration for Irène’s path, especially her mother, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to win in multiple disciplines. Although she was still very young when her parents made the discovery that changed the fields of physics, chemistry, and medicine forever, it was not a surprise when she started showing interest in science and a great mathematical talent. Therefore, her mother set up a private group with some of the most distinguished academics and scientists in France to provide classes at home for each another’s children1 (p.123).

After two years of home-schooling, Joliot-Curie finished her secondary education at the Collège Sévigné in Paris, and subsequently entered the Sorbonne to study science. Her studies were interrupted by the First World War, throughout which she worked with her mother, who had developed X-ray mobile units to help the injured on the battlefields. Irène was only eighteen at the time, but she seemed to show great confidence working independently from her mother1 (p.117-118).

Once the war was over, Joliot-Curie earned her PhD in natural sciences, researching alpha rays in polonium. She was working at the Radium Institute, ran by Marie Curie, where she met Frédéric Joliot, whom she married in 1926. Frédéric and Irène shared a common passion for science, as did Irène’s parents, so they began to work together. They had a daughter, Hélène, in 1927, and a son, Pierre, in 1932, both of which later became esteemed scientists. They spent a lot of time working as partners and, in 1935, almost ten years after their marriage; they won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for their “synthesis of new artificial radioactive elements”3.

After that, Frédéric took a position at the Collège de France and Irène became a professor at the University of Paris while also continuing her work at the Radium Institute, of which she later became director. They ended their scientific collaboration, however, with their new positions, since “they basically controlled every piece of serious nuclear work in France”4 (p.115).

She spent the last decade of her life doing research, despite her health increasingly becoming an obstacle to her work. Just like her mother, Joliot-Curie endangered her health due to frequent exposure to large amounts of radiation throughout her life. In 1956, she was diagnosed with leukaemia, while Frédéric fought a serious case of hepatitis, also contracted due to prolonged exposure to radiation. Irène Joliot-Curie died the same year and Frédéric Joliot-Curie died two years later5 (p.134).



Irène Joliot-Curie spent the beginnings of her scientific career and a large part of her life working with her mother at the Radium Institute. The composition of the laboratory varied according to the social context, but overall, Joliot-Curie was one of 47 women who worked in Marie Curie’s laboratory between 1904 and 19342 (p.44).

Despite the environment at the Institute, the situation outside it, among the general public, was slightly different. Women were still perceived as incapable of being scientists, and although the media celebrated Irène Joliot-Curie in 1925 when she publicly presented her doctoral thesis, reactions were different when she and Frédéric were awarded the Nobel Prize. “The press coverage almost universally attributed the prize to Frédéric’s talent while Irène was relegated to an assistant’s role”6 (p.220). Just like her mother, Irène was often denied well-deserved merits and honours, mostly because of her gender, even if she outperformed many of her male counterparts who were given such awards. She also lost some positions and experienced discrimination because of her political views2 (p.55).

Disregarding the fact that Joliot-Curie did benefit from having an outstanding scientist as a mother and thus had the opportunity to “show what a woman, given a chance to conduct research, could do for scientific progress”2 (p.55), gender discrimination was the common everyday reality of all women scientists during the 20th century, even when they showed singular brilliance and created extraordinary work2 (p.55).



Science is the foundation of all progress that improves human life and diminishes suffering.

cited by  Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington DC, Joseph Henry Press, 142-143.


For my part, I consider science to be the paramount interest of my life.

cited by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington DC, Joseph Henry Press, 128.



1932: Matteucci Medal, with her husband and partner Frédéric Joliot-Curie.
1935: Knight of Legion of Honour.
1935: Nobel Prize in Chemistry, with her husband and partner Frédéric Joliot-Curie.
1937: Awarded honorary degree by Ohio’s Oberlin College in the USA.
1939: Officer of the Legion of Honour.
1940: Bernard College Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to Science, with her husband.
1951: Awarded honorary degree by Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
2001: The Irène Joliot-Curie Prize is established by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research in collaboration with the EADS Foundation, the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Technology.



Besides her scientific work, Irène Joliot-Curie was also involved in politics. Both she and her husband opposed the spreading fascist movement and she was asked to become under-secretary of scientific research by the Popular Front, an anti-fascist coalition. She was also a pacifist and a strong advocate for women’s education; she served on the World Peace Council and on the National Committee of the Union of French Women2 (p.46).



Irene Joliot-Curie photographed by Robert Doisneau (1943)

Doisneau, Robert (1943), Irène Joliot-Curie, photograph, 32.07 x 38.1 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1944), Monsieur & Madame Joliot-Curie, photograph, Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Schomburg, Alex (illus.) (1947), It Really Happened, no. 11, Visual Editions, <> (last accessed 15 Feb. 2017).

Chicago, Judy (1974-79), The Dinner Party, mixed media (art installation), Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, NY.  Irène Joliot Curie’s name is displayed among other 999 mythical, historical and notable women on the Heritage Floor part of the installation.

Gess, Stéphane (artist) (2009-2010), La Brigade Chimérique, Issues 1 – 6, Serge Lehman and Fabrice Colin (writers), Céline Bessonneau (colorist), Nantes, L’Atalante.

Irène et Fred (1984), dir. Roger Kahane, TF1, film. Out From the Shadows: The Story Of Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1994), dir. Rosemarie Reed, independent film.

Mondfrans, Jennifer (2014), Irène Curie, acrylic on canvas, 45.7 x 60.9 cm.



Recherches sur les rayons alpha du polonium. Oscillation de parcours, vitesse d’émission, pouvoir ionisant (1925), Université de Paris, Paris, Masson & Cie. Dissertation.

with Frédéric Joliot (1932), La projection de noyaux atomiques par un rayonnement très pénétrant; l’existence du neutron (1932), Paris, Hermann & Cie.

with Frédéric Joliot (1933), “Électrons de matérialisation et de transmutation”, Journal de Physique et le Radium, 4 (8), 494-500, <> (last accessed 15 Feb. 2017).

with Frédéric Joliot (1934), L’électron positif, Paris, Hermann & Cie.

with Frédéric Joliot (1935), “Artificial Production of Radioactive Elements”, in Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1922-1941, Amsterdam, Elsevier Publishing Company <> (last accessed 15 Feb. 2017).

with Frédéric Joliot (1961), Œuvres scientifiques complètes, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.



Chouchan, Marianne (1998), Irène Joliot–Curie ou La science au cœur, Paris, Hachette.

Jacquemond, Louis–Pascal (2014), Irène Joliot–Curie Biographie, Paris, Odile Jacob.

Loriot, Noëlle (1991), Irène Joliot–Curie, Paris, Presses de la Renaissance.

Radvanyi, Pierre (2005), Les Curie: pionniers de l’atome, Paris, Belin.



  1. McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington DC, Joseph Henry Press, 117-143.
  2. Gilmer, Penny J. (2011), “Irène Joliot–Curie, A Nobel Laureate in Artificial Radioactivity”, in Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, H. Chiu, J.P. Gilmer and D.F. Treagust (eds.), Rotterdam, Sense Publishers, 41-57.
  3. “Irène Joliot-Curie – Facts”, org, Nobel Media AB 2014 <> (last accessed 7 Jun. 2016).
  4. Crossfield, Tina E. (1997), “Irène Joliot-Curie: Following in Her Mother’s Footsteps”, in A devotion to their science: Pioneer women of radioactivity, Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham (eds.), Philadelphia PA, Chemical Heritage Foundation, 97-123.
  5. Swaby, Rachel, (2015), Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, New York, Broadway Books, 130-134.
  6. Goldsmith, Barbara (2005), Obsessive genius: The inner world of Marie Curie, New York, W. W. Norton.
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