Series: STEM Nobel Laureates

The STEM Nobel Laureates series highlights women that have won Noble Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, or Economic Sciences. The Nobel Prize is a set of international awards that recognize significant academic, cultural, or scientific advances. The Nobel Prize is considered the most prestigious reward in any field.

In the past, 53 women have won a Nobel Peace prize, with 21 of the women winning in STEM fields. This series highlights these 21 women, recounting the woman's background, accomplishments, and notable quotes.

You may be familiar with the last name of our next female Nobel STEM winner: Irène Joliot-Curie. Yes, indeed, Irène is the daughter of Marie Curie, the subject of our previous article and first female Nobel STEM winner!


On September 12, 1897, Irène Joliot-Curie was born from Marie and Pierre Curie. Irène was the oldest child of her family of four. During her younger years, Irène had to be raised by her paternal grandfather because her parents were working hard to obtain their first Nobel Prize in Physics awarded in 1903. Similar to her mother, Irène was gifted in math as a child.

Tragically, Irène's father died in the spring of 1906 when Irène was eight years old. Needing aid for raising her children, Marie Curie requested that her father stayed with her family. Growing up with her grandfather, Irène was exposed to a wide variety of fields, from politics, natural sciences, and medicine, allowing her to develop a diverse educational background that facilitated her voracious curiosity. Grandfather Eugene passed when Irène was 12.

Irène continued to develop her intellectual prowess when she attended a teaching cooperative arranged by professors at the University of Sorbonne for their children. Dissatisfied by local schools, the professors at Sorbonne organized this cooperative to be taught by eminent professors at the University of Sorbonne to accelerate and advance the children's knowledge. Thus, the children were taught physics by Marie Curie, chemistry by Jean Baptiste Perrin, and mathematics by Paul Langevin. Following the cooperative's end, Irène attended College Sevigne to study for her high school (baccalaureate) degree.

However, Irène was not able to enter academia following her secondary school education. World War I had arrived. Tagging along with her mother, Irène had first-hand experience working in science during her practice as a nurse radiographer. As a nurse radiographer, Irène took X-rays in battlefield hospitals, eventually leading radiology units and teaching others to take X-rays. She was awarded a military medal from the French government for her war efforts.

Following the war, Irène obtained her bachelor's degrees at the University of Sorbonne for math and physics. Irène then went to her mother's Radium Institute, eventually receiving her Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1925.

In October 1926, Irène married Frédéric Joliot. Like Irène 's parents, Irène and Frédéric were not only partners in life but also in science.

Unfortunately, their research journey began with two massive blows.

The Joliot-Curies barely missed discovering the neutron and positron, other Nobel-awarded discoveries. Their research blunders invigorated them to become more efficient and to report their research results faster.

Their Nobel Prize-winning work involved creating the first artificial radioactive element called radioisotopes. The Joliot-Curies produced radioisotopes by bombarding various light elements (such as aluminum, boron, and magnesium) with alpha particles (alpha particles are helium nuclei, He2+). Radioisotopes were a significant discovery as before artificial radioactivity, radioactive elements were only found in trace amounts in natural ores. Thus, radioactive meant extracting radioactive material was very costly and time-consuming. The Joliot-Curies not only made incredible strides in Chemistry through their work, but they also help aid future research and use of radioactivity in medicine and biomedical research, particularly for cancer treatment. The Joliot-Curies were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

In 1946, Irène became the director at the Radium Institute. She began to ease her working hours, as reflecting on her childhood, she felt that she had to consistently yearn for her parent's attention due to their steadfast focus on their research. She also became more involved in politics, particularly for women's rights and peace.

On March 18, 1956, Irène Joliot-Curie died of leukemia at age 58. Her leukemia is mostly attributed to her early exposure to radiation throughout her childhood with her parent's work with radioactive material, her career as a nurse radiographer during World War II, and her work with radioactive material for her Nobel Prize.

"That one must do some work seriously and must be independent and not merely amuse oneself in life—this our mother [Marie Curie] has told us always, but never that science was the only career worth following." ― Irène Joliot-Curie

Her parent's illustrious academic career undoubtedly shaped Irène Joliot-Curie's life. Irène was also able to obtain a life-long partner in her scientific work and for her family, a partnership that allowed them to be the Nobel Prize winners. Through her background, Irène knew that she needed to put effort into anything she undertook, as she demonstrated in her groundbreaking discovery. Irène 's message is crucial because it talks about any endeavor you undertake – you got to put in the work!

Sources Famous Scientists. (2018, August 15). Irène Joliot-Curie. Famous Scientists: The Art of Genius. https://www.famousscientists.org/irene-joliot-curie/

Science History Institute. (n.d.). Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/irene-joliot-curie-and-frederic-joliot

The Faces of Chemistry. (n.d.). Irène Joliot-Curie | 175 Faces of Chemistry. 175 Faces of Chemistry. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from http://www.rsc.org/diversity/175-faces/all-faces/irene-joliot-curie/

The Nobel Prize. (n.d.). Irène Joliot-Curie Biographical. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1935/joliot-curie/biographical/

The Nobel Prize | Women who changed science | Irène Joliot-Curie. (n.d.). The Nobel Prize. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/irene-joliot-curie

With thanks - this article was written by Stephanie Eristoff.

Photo credit - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ir%C3%A8ne_Joliot-Curie#/media/File:Ir%C3%A8ne_Joliot-Curie_Harcourt.jpg

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