Jean-Frédéric Joliot (1900-1958) and Irène Curie (1897-1956)
CURIE'S LAST YEARS were brightened by the flourishing collaboration
between her two lab assistants, her daughter Irène and young Frédéric
Joliot. Just as Marie and Pierre had combined personal love with
professional commitment, so did the Joliot-Curies. Irène and Fred
shared not only a devotion to scientific research but also similar
political outlooks as well as a love of sports.
The fame and the achievement of her parents neither discouraged nor intimidated her....Her sincere love of science, her gifts, inspired in her only one ambition: to work forever in that laboratory which she had seen go up. --Eve Curie on her sister Irène
Like Pierre Curie, Fred Joliot lacked impeccable academic credentials. But he had graduated first in his engineering class at the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry, where he studied under Paul Langevin, the Curies' colleague and Marie's erstwhile love. In 1925 Langevin helped place Fred at the Radium Institute as a junior assistant to Marie Curie. By that time Irène, two and a half years Fred's senior, had been awarded her doctorate for studies of the alpha rays of polonium (the first of the two elements her mother had discovered 27 years earlier). About a year after Fred's arrival in the lab, the couple married.
OUBTFUL THAT THE MARRIAGE WOULD LAST, Marie Curie not only insisted on a prenuptial agreement but also confirmed that Irène would inherit the use of the radium at the lab. The young couple struggled to make ends meet, with Fred doing some teaching on the side. Despite his many responsibilities, he was able in 1930 to complete his doctorate on properties of compounds of polonium. For a while his financial concerns led him to contemplate leaving research for a better-paying career in industry.
Before 1928, when
they began to sign their scientific articles jointly, Irène and
Fred had each published some solid work as individuals, but neither
had demonstrated outstanding scientific abilities. Together they
brushed greatness twice before striking pay dirt. In 1932 they noted
the unusual result of an experiment they performed, but failed to
understand it completely. That left the discovery of the neutron
to James Chadwick. In another experiment, drawing an incorrect conclusion
about the mysterious outcome, they ceded the discovery of the positron
to C. D. Anderson.
Joliot in 1939 with fellow scientists Lew Kowarski and Hans Halban around a cloud chamber, as they began work on uranium fission. When Joliot told Irène that the cloud chamber was the most beautiful phenomenon in the world,
she--by now the mother of two children--corrected him: Yes, my dear, it would be the most beautiful phenomenon in the world--if it were not for childbirth.
HANKS TO THEIR DISCOVERY, artificially radioactive atoms could now be prepared relatively inexpensively. The tedious labor and high cost of separating naturally occurring radioactive elements like radium from their ores would no longer impede the progress of nuclear physics and medicine. Their discovery brought the pair the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
ORKING SEPARATELY after receiving the Nobel Prize and the fame and obligations that went with it, Irène and Fred each took on administrative duties and students. Irène accepted the position of Undersecretary for Scientific Research in a Socialist-Communist coalition government, but political maneuvers were not to her taste and she soon returned to the lab. In 1938 her group did painstaking work on uranium with puzzling results, which provoked German scientists to research that led to the discovery of nuclear fission. Fred's group, recognizing a potentially immense source of energy, began pioneering work on chain reactions. When Germany invaded France in 1940, his collaborators fled and helped create the British atomic energy program, leading to the American Manhattan Project. Fred and Irène decided to remain in their homeland. © 2000 - American Institute of Physics