Irene Curie was a brilliant dedicated scientist who accomplished many things throughout her life but was overshadowed by those around her throughout her life. She was overshadowed by Nobel laureate parents Maire and Pierre Curie, by co-laureate and husband Jean Frederick Joliot, by her physicist daughter Helene, who was married to Paul Langevin’s grandson, and by biochemist son Pierre Joliot. She was also overshadowed by her non-scientist sister Eve Denise Curie, who wrote the biography of her mother that inspired so many people.
Some people say that if it were not for her mother she would not have the opportunities that allowed her to become one of the most brilliant scientists. Although she was overshadowed by many of the people around her, her scientific genius was inherited from her mother and father. As a daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, she was considered by colleagues with less familiar advantages to be the “Crown Princess” of science. Many were taken aback by her imperturbable calm, which they mistook for coldness, and by her direct manner in answering questions, which was misconstrued as haughtiness.
She had a powerful personality, simple, direct, and self-reliant. She knew her mind and spoke it, sometimes perhaps with devastating frankness: but her remarks were informed with such regard for scientific truth and with such conspicuous sincerity that they commanded the greatest respect in all circumstances. She was finally recognized for her genius, and not her social graces. Also underestimated by her colleagues was the effect in her life and career of a devoted and brilliant teacher, her mother. Irene was born on September 12, 1897, the elder of two daughters born to Marie and Pierre Curie.
Without anticipating women’s lib, but simply not questioning her ability to do so, Maire combined an active career in research with motherhood. To Marie, an important part of motherhood was orchestrating the education of her daughters. From her earliest childhood, it was clear that Irene was very intelligent and had exceptional talent in mathematics. She entered school at six. The school near the Curie home was not considered suitable so Irene began her formal education with the more challenging curriculum offered at the school on the rue(street) Cassini. , near the Observatory.
At the age of ten, Irene’s talents and interest in mathematics were apparent. Since there was not an appropriate school for her in all of Paris, Irene, along with nine other children of prestigious scholars studied in their own school, known as the “Cooperative”(today it would be known as “home schooling” or “alternative education”). Their teachers included Marie Curie, Paul Langevin, and Jean Perrin. Perhaps equally important to Irene’s intellectual development were the ongoing conversations that she shared with her mother to say nothing of the math puzzles that concluded the letters she received from her mother when they were separated.
Irene finished her high school education at College of Sevigne, and independent school in the center of Paris. She entered the Sorbonne in October, 1914 to prepare for a baccalaureate in mathematics and physics. Her education was interrupted by World War I. In 1916, Irene left the Sorbonne to assist her mother, Marie Curie, who at that time was a nurse radiographer, with the fleet of mobile x-ray facilities, that she and her mother pioneered, that helped to save the lives of so many wounded soldiers. This helped to expose doctors to the benefits of x-ray technology.
Irene extended this work by directing the development of diagnostic x-ray facilities in military hospitals in France and Belgium. After the war, she received a Military Medal for this endeavor. In 1918, Irene joined the staff of the Curie Institute as her mother’s assistant as which she established a name for herself for her studies in polonium. Her mother taught her how to prepare and purify polonium, and she learned how to design and construct various adaptations of the lightweight bases needed to hold minuscule, strongly radioactive deposits.
In 1922 her first paper was published concerning the speed of the alpha rays of polonium. She would bombard a screen of matter with alpha rays, then study the target through a microscope, concentrating on the alpha rays colliding with the atoms of the screen, counting the flashes and noting where they hit. She went on to publish another paper on the rays’ distribution – which Marie personally sent to Albert Einstein – and their magnetic deviation, all of which contributed to her doctoral thesis. During this time she was also completing her doctoral dissertation on the alpha rays of polonium.
After successfully defending her thesis in March, 1925, she became a Doctor of Science. She turned down all offers of teachi9ng positions to continue her studies in polonium, and to continue as her mother’s personal assistant. Frederic Joliot was born in Paris on March 19, 1900, was educated at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris and the University of Paris. He visited the Institute in December, 1924 at which time he met with Marie at the suggestion of his mentor, Paul Langevin. Marie invited Frederick to join the institute as one of her assistants.
Irene was given the job of teaching him the techniques required to work with radioactivity. Irene and Frederick were married in a civil ceremony on October 29, 1926. Because of the respect with which the Curie Name was held, the two combined surnames and their family name Joliot-Curie. Their daughter Helene was born September 17, 1927 and their son Pierre on March 12, 1932. Like her mother, Irene combined family and profession. Although both Irene and Frederick spent long hours in the laboratory, it is clear that their family was important to them.
Holidays were an important time for them, Until World War II interrupted this, they were often together at their vacation home in L’Arcouest. Her mother, Marie Curie, died of aplastic anemia, a type of leukemia in July 1934. As soon and Irene and Frederick were married there began a collaboration of husband and wife in scientific work rivaling in productive genius even that of her parents. The most outstanding of their joint papers were published in the years 1932-1934.
For their work concerning artificial radioactivity and or their contributions toward the discover y of the neutron the received the Nobel prize. Irene abhorred the frivolous. Her childhood was dedicated to her studies, her adulthood to her research. For relaxation she liked to hike in the mountains, ski, or play tennis. In contrast to her sister Eve, who enjoyed dressing in the height of fashion, Irene followed her mother’s pattern of dressing simply. One gets the sense that she resented wasting any resources of funds, energy, or time on fashion.
The exception to this was her appearance at her Nobel Prize Ceremony. Pictures of this event reveal a beautiful, elegant woman in a long, black gown. Irene was awarded her Nobel prize in a time of astonishing developments in atomic physics. In the preceding few years. Chadwick read their paper and came up with and explanation that had identified the neutron, completing the elucidation of the triumvirate of particles which compose all atoms, and which replaced the Daltonian theory of solid spherical atoms.
For this work he alone, not him along with the Joliot-Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize. The task of modern chemists and atomic physicists was to restore a sense of order to the atom, which at this time seemed quite vaporous and busy, having been shown, approximately three decades earlier, to contain tiny negative electrons and, several years later, relatively, massive positive nuclei, all somehow avoiding each other despite their attractive natures.
These particles seemed to exist in an atom which was a virtual void since, as demonstrated by Ernest Rutherford, together these particles seemed to occupy very little space. In addition, certain elements such as radium, were seen to undergo extremely energetic emissions of particles or rays, in the process transforming themselves into other elements. Cockcroft and Walton had, weeks after the identification of the neutron, managed to realize the alchemists dream of deliberate transmutation of one element to another – a startling development, but only one of many to follow shortly within a decade.