Marie Curie’s legacy is well-enshrined in the annals of science. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win it twice, the first couple to win said prize (with her husband, Pierre), and to this day, she remains the only female Nobel laureate in two separate fields. Her work in the field of radioactivity stands untarnished, a testament to her monumental scientific achievements. However, equally important was the contribution of another Curie, a slightly less popular Curie—her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie.
Irene Joliot-Curie was born on September 12, 1897, in Paris, the first child of Pierre and Marie Curie. Her early life saw her raised in an erudite family before the tragic passing of Pierre in a horse-riding accident. During World War I, she worked in her mother’s laboratory as a radiographer. Her work had a dual outcome: it exposed her to the magic wand of science in saving lives through x-rays and introduced her to Frederic Joliot, who would later become her spouse and joint Nobel Prize winner much later, in 1935.
Nonetheless, it is worth stating that long before the Joliot-Curies won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artificially manufactured isotopes, a number of scientists had made inroads into the study of radioactivity. In 1901, Wilhelm Roentgen claimed the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of x-rays. Two years later, Henri Becquerel and the senior Curies won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their study of spontaneous radioactivity.
However, Irene Joliot-Curie’s contribution was particularly monumental in that it revolutionised the application of radioactive elements in a wide range of fields such as medicine, agriculture, and industry. By bombarding aluminium with alpha rays, she was able to create artificial radioactive elements, a far cry from the long, tedious, and costly method of extracting radioactive elements from the earth’s crust. She simplified the difficult process, making radioactive elements much more commonplace, cheaper, and easily accessible.
To this day, radioisotopes remain a worthwhile instrument in the field of medicine. They form the bedrock of nuclear medicine. Nuclear medicine, derived from nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics, is an aspect of medicine involved in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases through the use of radioactive elements. These artificially radioactive isotopes are used for nuclear imaging alongside the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, most usually cancers and tumours. Radioactive elements are either ingested, inhaled, or injected into the body to either diagnose or treat. The diagnostic application shows the functionality of specific tissues and organs in the body through the use of radioactive ‘tracers,’ which examine specific organs with the aim of determining their functionality.
Radioactive isotopes are commonly used to examine and scan the brain, heart, kidneys, thyroid and gallbladder. On the other hand, the use of a tracer for treatment purposes involves targeting cancerous cells and tissues and destroying them. Furthermore, nuclear medicine is instrumental in monitoring blood flow to organs, observing their function, alongside examining bone growth and density.
Besides medicine, the application of radioactive isotopes in other fields is varied. In agriculture, they are used for food preservation, amongst other things. In the biochemical industry, they serve the purpose of industrial sterilisation.
Irene Joliot-Curie mirrored her mother’s life in more ways than one. They both made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of radioactivity, with both mother and daughter picking up Nobel Prizes in chemistry. Similarly, she and Frederic, her husband, were the second couple after her parents to win the Nobel Prize. Sadly, she mirrored her mother’s death as well. Irene Joliot-Curie died on March 17, 1956, of complications caused by excessive exposure to radioactivity.
As is common with countless other scientists, Irene devoted her life to her work, giving it all she had. In true Newtonian fashion, she stood on the shoulders of giants like her parents, Becquerel and Roentgen, developed their works, and made a name for herself. She was born into a family of giants and became a giant herself, giving humanity a gift that saves lives.
Annually, February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Today, we honour not just Irene Joliot-Curie, not just her mother, Marie, but all the women who have devoted their lives to scientific discoveries, groundbreaking inventions, and significant achievements. We honour these women who have blazed the trail for others to follow. Women who did their bit to leave the world a bit better than they met it.
Adedoyin Ajayi is a writer and corporate worker based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is a Commonwealth Correspondent, a researcher, and has authored a collection of short stories. You can reach him at [email protected].