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Famous chemists: Irene Joliot-Curie

Famous chemists: Irene Joliot-CurieWho was she?

A French scientist; winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 for her discovery of artificial radioactivity.

Why is she famous?

She was the daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie. She studied at the Radium Institute which had been built by her parents. She married a young chemical engineer called Frédéric Joliot and they combined their research interests on the study of atomic nuclei. In 1934 they made the discovery that sealed their place in scientific history.

Building on the work of Marie and Pierre, Irène and Frédéric realised the impossible - turning one element into another. They didn’t succeed in turning anything to gold, but they created radioactive nitrogen from boron and silicon from magnesium. By now various medical procedures required radioactive materials and this discovery meant they could create radioactive materials quickly and cheaply. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935.
Irène’s group pioneered research into radium nuclei that lead a separate group of German physicists to discover nuclear fission; the splitting of the nucleus itself, which eventually led to the development of the atom bomb.

Other achievements

Irène became actively involved in promoting women’s education, serving on the National Committee of the Union of French Women and the World Peace Council. Both Irène and Frédéric were presented with the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest award.

And the scientific legacy that was handed down by her mother, Marie Curie, still lives on. Joliot-Curie's daughter, Hélène, is a respected nuclear physicist and a professor at the University of Paris. Her son, Pierre, is a noted biochemist at the French National Scientific Research Centre.