Marie and Pierre Curie are undoubtedly two of the most famous people in the history of science. Less famous is their daughter Irene, though as it turns out, she was just as smart. Born in in 1897, Irene left traditional school at 10 after it became clear she was no ordinary child. She started homeschooling, led by her mother and the best French scholars. After two years, Irene started back up with “normal” school, but WWI briefly stalled her Bachelor’s degree.
Instead, she went to help her mother, who was running 20 mobile field hospitals. The technology exposed them both to dangerous levels of radiation, which would end up contributing to Marie’s premature death. In 1925, Marie asked Irene to teach radiochemical research techniques to Frederic Joliot. The young man had showed promise as an athlete, but eventually went into engineering and served in the war. Marie took him on as a research assistant, but wasn’t especially impressed.
Irene, however, who was also occupied with presenting her senior thesis, fell in love. She married Frederic a year later, and they hyphenated their last names to Joliot-Curie. Marie wasn’t overjoyed by the match, and made Irene get a prenup and made sure that when Marie died, it would be Irene who inherited the radium in the Curie lab. Frederic and Marie had a daughter a year later, and a son in 1932. They also collaborated on their scientific research that built on the work the Curies had done. The couple discovered the secret to transforming one element into another, known as artificial radioactivity. In 1935, they won a joint Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their triumph.
WWII brought health and family trouble. Irene came down with a bad case of tuberculosis because of her exposure to radiation, and went to Switzerland. When Germany occupied France, she managed to get her two children out, but Frederic stayed behind. There, he worked to sneak papers to England in case the Nazis seized upon the opportunity to create new weapons. He was also a part of the French Resistance and in 1942, joined the French Communist Party.
In 1945, the war came to an end with the dropping of the atomic bomb. The Joliot-Curie contribution on the transmutation of elements had been vital to its creation, and they were devastated. After the war, Frederic and Irene were both involved with the French Communist Party (though Irene never formerly joined) as well as the Women’s Rights Movement. Irene’s career continued to thrive, with various appointments, honorary degrees, and more. In 1956, Irene succumbed to her battle with leukemia, which most likely was caused by her work during WWI and an exposure to polonium from a 1946 lab explosion. She was only 58. Two years later, Frederic died, as well.
Both of the Joliot-Curie children became scientists. Helene is a professor of nuclear physics, while Pierre Joliot is a biologist. With all three generations participating in the scientific community and three Nobel prizes in the sciences, the family might just be the most impressive in history.
During the 1980’s, fear about nuclear war was at an all-time high. This made-for-TV film captures that terror.