In 1925, Irène Curie walked into an auditorium of 1000 people to defend her dissertation. This was big news because she was the daughter of two time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. The pressure could have been enormous, but as usual Irène was calm, confident, and dressed unfashionably! From an early age, Irène had dealt with her parent’s fame both positive, such as when at the age of six she calmly told the reporter who came to the house that her Nobel Prize winning parents were at the laboratory, and negative when a classmate handed her a newspaper article about her mother’s affair with Paul Langevin. She had come to see fame as something external and of no real importance. She didn’t pursue her research for fame, but for the sheer joy of the science itself.
At first glance, Irène was a quiet, shy child, some might even say somber, but as time would show, she just had little energy or attention for things that in her mind didn’t matter or that bored her. Born in September of 1897, her parents Pierre and Marie Curie were in the midst of their most intense period of research. In spite of this, she was a wanted and welcome addition to the family. Limited time and resources, however, did mean that the young parents needed help, and this came in the form of Pierre’s father, Eugene Curie. Pierre’s mother died shortly after Irène was born, so Eugene moved into the house to take care of her.
Eugene was a more openly affectionate person than either Marie or Pierre, and gave Irène, and later her sister Eve, born in Paris in 1904, much of their emotional foundation. Irène later said that many of her values and beliefs about religion and politics came from her grandfather rather than her mother. When Pierre died in 1906, Marie was so distraught that she wouldn’t let his name be spoken around her. Eugene helped the girls by talking to them and teaching them about their father. After Eugene died in 1910, Marie, Irène, and Eve became much closer and remained close for their entire lives.
In spite of a more reticent personality, Marie and Eugene agreed on many things. Because of his unique personality and abilities, Pierre’s parents had home-schooled him, and Marie felt that the same approach would be better for Irène. To supplement the public school, she organized a cooperative among other scientists and academics to provide classes in their homes for their children. The subjects ranged from mathematics and science, to literature and art. Emphasis was put on creativity, play, and self-expression. Other physical and practical activities weren’t neglected either. Marie made sure the girls learned to cook, knit, and sew, as well as to swim, bicycle, and ride horseback. Irène was especially athletic. She took long backpacking trips during the summer, frequently swam the Australian crawl in the Seine, and could dance until early in the morning. It didn’t phase her that backpacking and the Australian crawl were considered men’s sports.
From an early age it was clear that Irène was very much like her father. Among her friends she was calm and relaxed, but she was less comfortable with strangers, rarely smiling in public. Her thought process was much like his as well, not as quick as Eve, but a deep analytical thinker. It was also clear that Irène would be good at science. After the cooperative ended, Marie continued to teach Irène mathematics to give her the foundation she needed, even sending problems back and forth in the mail when Marie was away at conferences. After a couple more years in public school, Irène finally entered the Sorbonne to study science.
In 1914, World War I interrupted Irène’s studies. Marie had written to Irène saying that she hoped they could both be of service, so when her mother developed a mobile x-ray unit, she went into the field to help operate and maintain them. But to say that she helped her mother is to greatly understate the situation. The need was so great that they worked independently of each other. Irène went to the front to set up, repair, and operate the units. Often they were used during surgery to help locate shrapnel in the body. When she wasn’t at the front trying to convince experienced military surgeons that a teenaged girl knew more about x-rays and geometry than they did, she was training other technicians. In spite of spending her eighteenth birthday alone at the front, she seems to have handled this time with composure and a confidence that is rare, although her mother never doubted her. Irène later said, “My mother had no more doubts about me than she had about herself.”
Once the war was over, Irène returned to the Radium Institute, run by Marie, to continue her research and study. Here in 1924, just before receiving her doctorate, Irène met Frédéric Joliot. Two years her junior, Frédéric was outgoing and charming. According to their daughter Hélène, they were “opposites in everything.” He was from a big family, had a wide variety of interests, and was much more sociable than Irène, but they shared some very important things. They loved outdoor sports, had similar political views, and loved science. When they were married in October of 1926, they had lunch at Marie’s apartment and went back to work.
Irène and Frédéric worked together for the rest of their lives and collaborated on their most important work. As with other creative teams, their approaches were very different. He moved quickly from one idea to the next, taking creative leaps, while Irène was slower in her thought process, but moved steadily toward logical conclusions. Several times they made important discoveries, but didn’t interpret the information correctly. One of these experiments was similar to that done by Otto Hahn which was interpreted by Lise Meitner leading to Hahn’s Nobel Prize. Finally, in 1935, Irène and Frédéric Joliet-Curie received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.
In the intervening years, Irène had given birth to a daughter, Hélène in 1927, and to a son Pierre in 1932. She loved being a mother and in many ways was traditional, but she maintained her career. Although Marie died in 1934, she had lived long enough to see the experimental results that she knew would ensure her daughter a Nobel Prize. So in 1935, their lives were marred by only one thing – the growing Fascist threat in Europe.
After 1935, Irène and Frédéric no longer collaborated directly in their work. Frédéric took a position at the Collège de France where he worked in nuclear physics, building a cyclotron and raising funds for scientific research. In this position he became very powerful and contributed greatly to France’s ability to produce nuclear energy. Irène became a professor at the University of Paris, but continued as the research director at the Radium Institute. She also got involved in politics and joined several women’s rights organizations.
When the Popular Front, an anti-Fascist coalition, was elected in 1936, Irène was offered and accepted the position of under-secretary of scientific research, making her one of the first women cabinet members in France. As the war progressed, Frédéric joined the resistance and eventually, the Communist party because it was the most active anti-Fascist group in the country. Irène’s activity, however, declined. For almost twenty years she had suffered from tuberculosis and was having to take more and more time away from work and in the Alps on the “rest” cure. Finally, Frédéric, as head of his resistance organization, was forced to go underground and arranged to have Irène and the children smuggled into Switzerland, on June 6, 1944.
After the war, Frédéric was considered a hero, and appointed head of France’s Atomic Energy Commission with Irène as a commissioner. Irène was able to obtain streptomycin to cure her tuberculosis and continue her work for women’s rights and as director of the Radium Institute. For a while things were good, but by 1950, the Cold War was gaining ground and anti-communist sentiments were growing. Both Irène and Frédéric found themselves out of favor and for the first time outside the scientific community. Frédéric was fired from the Commission, and unable to obtain other scientific work, began to work for peace organizations. Irène was at least able to continue her work at the Institute, but the years of work had taken another toll.
Like Pierre and Marie before them, Irène and Frédéric were both suffering from the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation. Their health declined steadily in the 1950s. Even though Marie continued to work and worry about Frédéric’s health, she was finally unable to ignore the effects. On a trip to the Alps, Irène became ill. Returning to Paris, she checked in to the hospital and on March 17, 1856, Irène died of leukemia. Frédéric was too ill to see her for more than a few minutes. He died two years later. By this time the worst of the red scare was past and they were both honored with national funerals. They had spent their lives doing what they loved.
“I discovered in this girl whom other people regarded somewhat as a block of ice, an extraordinary person, sensitive and poetic, who in many ways gave the impression of being a living replica of what her father had been. I had read much about Pierre Curie. I had heard teachers who had known him talking about him and I rediscovered in his daughter the same purity, his good sense, his humility.” ~ Frédéric Joliot-Curie about Irène
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Marie Curie – early life
Marie Curie – scientific discoveries and Nobel Prize