Curie, Marie

Curie, Marie

orig. Maria Skłodowska

Marie Curie.

(born Nov. 7, 1867, Warsaw, Pol., Russian Empire—died July 4, 1934, near Sallanches, France) Polish-born French physical chemist. She studied at the Sorbonne (from 1891). Seeking the presence of radioactivity—recently discovered by Henri Becquerel in uranium—in other matter, she found it in thorium. In 1895 she married fellow physicist Pierre Curie (1859–1906). Together they discovered the elements polonium (which Marie named after her native Poland) and radium, and they distinguished alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. For their work on radioactivity (a term she coined), the Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics with Becquerel. Marie thus became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. After Pierre's death, Marie was appointed to his professorship and became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. In 1911 she won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering polonium and isolating pure radium, becoming the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. She died of leukemia caused by her long exposure to radioactivity. In 1995 she became the first woman whose own achievements earned her the honour of having her ashes enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris. Seealso Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

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Irène Joliot-Curie (12 September 189717 March 1956) was a French scientist, the daughter of Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie and the wife of Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Jointly with her husband, Joliot-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. This made the Curies the family with most Nobel laureates to date. Both children of the Joliot-Curies, Hélène and Pierre, are also esteemed scientists.


Early years

Joliot-Curie was born in Paris. After a year of traditional education, which began when she was 6 years old, her parents realized her obvious mathematical talent and decided that Irène’s academic abilities needed a more challenging environment. Marie joined forces with a number of eminent French scholars, including the prominent French physicist Paul Langevin to form “The Cooperative”, a private gathering of some of the most distinguished academics in France. Each contributed to educating one another’s children in their respective homes. The curriculum of The Co-operative was varied and included not only the principles of science and scientific research but such diverse subjects as Chinese and sculpture and with great emphasis placed on self expression and play.

This arrangement lasted for two years after which Joliot-Curie re-entered a more orthodox learning environment at the Collège Sévigné in central Paris from 1912 to 1914 and then onto the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne, to complete her Baccalaureat. Her studies at the Faculty of Science were interrupted by World War I. World War I Initially Joliot-Curie was taken by her mother to Brittany but a year later when she turned 18, she was re-united with her mother running the 20 mobile field hospitals that Marie had established. The hospitals were equipped with primitive X-ray equipment made possible by the Curies’ radiochemical research. This technology greatly assisted doctors to locate shrapnel in wounded soldiers but it was crude and led to both Marie and Irène, who were serving as a nurse radiographers, being exposed to large doses of radiation.

After the War Joliot-Curie returned to Paris to study at The Radium Institute that had been built by her parents, completed in 1914 but empty during the war. Her doctoral thesis was concerned with the alpha rays of polonium, the second element discovered by her parents and named after Marie’s country of birth, Poland. Joliot-Curie became Doctor of Science in 1925.


As she neared the end of her doctorate in 1924 she was asked to teach the precise laboratory techniques required for radiochemical research to the young chemical engineer Frédéric Joliot who she would later come to wed.

From 1928 Joliot-Curie and husband Frédéric combined their research interests on the study of atomic nuclei. Though their experiments identified both the positron and the neutron they failed to interpret the significance of the results and the discoveries were later claimed by C.D. Anderson and James Chadwick respectively. These discoveries would have secured greatness indeed as together with J. J. Thompson's discovery of the electron in 1897 they finally replaced Dalton’s theory of atoms being solid spherical particles.

Finally, in 1934 they made the discovery that sealed their place in scientific history. Building on the work of Marie and Pierre, who had isolated naturally occurring radioactive elements, Joliot-Curies realised the alchemist’s dream of turning one element into another, creating radioactive nitrogen from boron and then radioactive isotopes of phosphorus from aluminium and silicon from magnesium. By now the application of radioactive materials for use in medicine was growing and this discovery led to an ability to create radioactive materials quickly, cheaply and plentifully. The Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 brought with it fame and recognition from the scientific community and Joliot-Curie was awarded a professorship at the Faculty of Science.

Irène’s group pioneered research into radium nuclei that led a separate group of German physicists to discover nuclear fission; the splitting of the nucleus itself and the vast amounts of energy emitted as a result.

The years of working so closely with such deadly materials finally caught up with Joliot-Curie and she was diagnosed with leukemia. She had been accidentally exposed to polonium when a sealed capsule of the element exploded on her laboratory bench in 1946. Treatment with antibiotics and a series of operations did relieve her suffering temporarily but her condition continued to deteriorate. Despite this Joliot-Curie continued to work and in 1955 drew up plans for new physics laboratories at the Universitie d’Orsay, South of Paris.

Political views

The Joliot-Curies had become increasingly aware of the growth of the fascist movement. They opposed its ideals and joined the Socialist Party in 1934, The Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes a year later and in 1936 actively supported republicans in the Spanish civil war. In the same year Joliot-Curie was appointed Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research for the French government where she helped in founding the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

The Joliot-Curies had continued Pierre and Marie’s policy of publishing all of their work for the benefit of the global scientific community but afraid of the danger that might result should it be developed for military use they stopped. On October 30th 1939 they placed all of their documentation on nuclear fission into the vaults of the Académie des Sciences where it remained until 1949.

Joliot-Curie's political career continued after the war and she became a commissioner in the Commissariat à l'énergie Atomique. However, she still found time for scientific work and in 1946 became director of her mother’s Institut du Radium, Radium Institute.

Joliot-Curie became actively involved in promoting women’s education, serving on the National Committee of the Union of French Women (Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises) and the World Peace Council. Joliot-Curies were given memberships to the French Légion d'honneur; Irène as an officer and Frederic as a commissioner, recognising his earlier work for the resistance.

Personal life

Irène and Frédéric hyphenated their surnames to Joliot-Curie after they married 1926. Eleven months later, their daughter Hélène was born, who would also become a noted physicist. Their son son, Pierre, a biologist, was born in 1932.

During World War II Joliot-Curie contracted tuberculosis and was forced to spend the next few years convalescing in Switzerland. Concern for her own health together with the anguish of leaving her husband and children in occupied France was hard to bear and she did make several dangerous visits back to France, enduring detention by German troops at the Swiss border on more than one occasion. Finally, in 1944 Joliot-Curie judged it too dangerous for her family to remain in France and she took her children back to Switzerland.

In 1956, after a final convalescent period in the French Alps Joliot-Curie was admitted to the Curie hospital in Paris where she died on March 17 at the age of 58 from leukemia.

Joliot-Curie's daughter, Hélène Langevin-Joliot, is a nuclear physicist and professor at the University of Paris; her son, Pierre Joliot, is a biochemist at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique .


  • Byers, Nina; Williams, Gary A. (2006). Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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