Professor Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie
Commander of the Legion of Honour
Paris, March 19, 1900 - Paris, August 14, 1958
Distinguished nuclear physicist, resistance leader and war hero,
respected national and international public servant, pianist, landscape painter,
and joint Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, 1935.
"in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements"
Frédéric Joliot-Curie was much more than just a leading member of one of chemistry's greatest dynasties. A person of strong personal and ethical conviction, Joliot played an important role in the French resistance movement during Nazi occupation, and risked his life to deny the Nazi scientists access to the research and materials that would have allowed them to develop their nuclear weapons program. A patron of the arts, and an artist himself in his free time, he was a keen reader of another Nobel Prize winner, Rudyard Kipling.
Sadly, like so many of the early researchers into radioactivity, Joliot died at the relatively young age of 58, briefly outliving his wife, Irène Joliot-Curie, with whom he was joint winner of the Nobel Prize. Exceptionally highly decorated in a dazzling array of fields, and with a brilliant career as a concerned scientist, a researcher, and a human being, his impact on science and on humanity will be felt well into the coming century, and surely beyond.
If, turning towards the past, we cast a glance at the progress achieved by science at an ever-increasing pace, we are entitled to think that scientists, building up or shattering elements at will, will be able to bring about transmutations of an explosive type, true chemical chain reactions.
- Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Nobel Prize lecture, December 1935
Born Jean Frédéric Joliot, sixth and youngest child of the Parisian merchant Henri Joliot and Emilie (nee Roederer), Joliot attended lycée Lakanal, in Paris, then went to boarding school at l'école Lavoisier in the south of France. His schooling was briefly interrupted in 1918, when he was called up for service in World War I; luckily for him, the war ended before Joliot reached the front line, although one of his brothers didn't make it home.
After his father's death in 1919 the young Joliot returned to Paris and was admitted to l'Ecole de Physique et de Chimie. Studying under Paul Langevin, former student of the late Pierre Curie and close friend and occasional lover to Marie Curie, he graduated first in his Engineering class, and captained the school football team. After graduation, in 1925, Langevin secured Joliot a position at Curie's Institut de Radium, where he worked as a junior lab assistant to Mme. Curie, alongside her shy daughter, Irène.
Imagine a fairy-tale romance where the prince and princess were some of the worlds most brilliant minds, and the magical castle was one of the greatest research institutes in the world, and you might be imagining the love that grew between Joliot and Irène Curie. When news of the relationship spread, many regarded the young Joliot with suspicion, acusing him of using the awkward Irène only to advance his career. Two and a half years older than he, and already awardeed her doctorate for studies into the alpha rays of polonium, many viewed the attention paid the "crown princess" by the gregarious and handsome "prince consort" with a great deal of cynicism. Indeed, when the couple married in 1926, only a year after Joliot's arrival at the Institut, Irène's imposing mother insisted on a prenuptial agreement between the newly-weds, and confirmed that Irène alone would inherit the use of the valuable radium at the lab. However, the similarities between the marriage of Irène's parents and her growing love with Frédéric were striking, and Mme. Curie came to recognised the brilliance of her son-in-law, calling him "a skyrocket".
I rediscovered in [Pierre Curie's] daughter the same purity, his good sense, his humility. - Frédéric Joliot-Curie
Undaunted by the speculation and interest surrounding their marriage, the young couple went ahead, but quickly found themselves struggling financially. Between his research at the Institut and occasional work teaching, Joliot worked at his thesis on the electrochemistry of radio-elements, for which he was awarded a Doctorate of Science from the Paris Faculty of Science in 1930.
Between 1926 and 1928, both of the Joliot-Curie's independantly published a good body of work, but neither found a share of the success that so many researchers in their field were experiencing. From 1928 onwards, they started collaborating closely and jointly signing their research papers, commencing research into the structure of the atom. In 1931, they failed to explain unusual results in an experiment, results that James Chadwick used in his discovery of the neutron that same year, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics alongside the Joliot-Curies in 1935. In bombardment experiments with alpha particles, the Joliot-Curie's observed an emission that seemed to not be affected by the electromagnetic field surrounding charged particles. This emission was, of course, the chargeless neutron, a particle that would penetrate to the nucleus of the heaviest atoms, and that, when harnessed, paved the way for the fission of Uranium-235, the creation of the atomic bomb, and nuclear energy.
The Joliot-Curie's also narrowly missed out on a second groundbreaking discovery in 1932 when they misinterpreted results in experiments using clowd chambers, results that were later shown to be clear evidence of the positron, discovered later that year by Carl David Anderson in research on cosmic rays. Both Anderson and Chadwick published their results in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1932, citing the eronious research of the Joliot-Curies, and denying them the discovery of the first new fundamental particles.
With the neutron we were too late. With the positron we were too late. Now we are in time. - Frédéric Joliot-Curie to a student, January 1934
Grown wary of dismissing or overlooking unusual results, the couple became extremely meticulous in their methods and analysis. This served them well when, in January of 1934, deep in the basement of the Institut, they created the first artificial atoms, stumbling upon a method for cheap, simple synthesis of radioisotopes for use in research and in medicine. While bombarding atoms of fluorine, sodium, and aluminium, and later magnesium and boron, with nuclear projectiles, they noticed secondary emissions of radiation occuring between fractions of a second and minutes after the original impact. They quickly realised the implication; they were creating radioisotopes that had never been seen in nature because of their high instability and short half-lives.
The effects of this discovery were profound. With the ability to create nuclei that they had never previously been able to study, or even imagine, nuclear scientists were given the tools to plunge deep into the heart of the atom and tease out its fundamental particles. Radioisotopes with half-lives of minutes or hours immediately became indispensable to medical science, particularly in radiology, and radiotherapy in the treatment of cancer. The Joliot-Curies and Marie Curie were aware of the irony in this - the creation of new radioactive elements had extended the lives of those suffering the same condition that had killed so many of their colleagues, their father and husband among them.
Progressive scientists...shall not give a jot of their science to make war...we shall hold firm, sustained by our conviction that in so doing we serve France and all of humanity. - Frédéric Joliot-Curie addressing the French Communist Party's 12th National Congress, April 1950
Joliot certainly did not limit his endeavours to the spheres of scientific research. His father, a passionate socialist and pacifist, had instilled in him from an early age a strong social conscience. Later, in the tutelage of Langevin, he found a conscientious and politically aware scientific mind, who demonstrated to him that a scientist ignores the social and political context of their work only at their great peril. In 1934, Joliot joined the French Socialist Party (SFIO), and in 1936, the League for the Rights of Man.
In 1937 Joliot was offered a Professorship at the Collège de France. He left the Institut, and built the first cyclotron in Western Europe for the Collège's nuclear chemistry laboratory. At the Collège, Joliot realised the huge potential in nuclear energy, and began research in that direction. In 1939 he established the parameters required for construction of an atomic pile using uranium and heavy water. Later that year, he also confirmed the results of German physicist Otto Hahn's nuclear fission research, incidentally providing a proof of principle of the chain reactions required for atomic weaponry.
Conscious of the progress of World War II, and acutely aware of the intentions of German scientists working with and for the Third Reich, Joliot was concerned about the value of his research to the invading forces. He purchased the total stockpile of uranium oxide from the Belgian Congo, some six tonnes, and as much heavy water as Norway could produce, collected all the documents and materials relevant to his research and the research of his French colleagues, and sent the entire package to colleagues and laboratories in London. He and Irène remained in Paris while their colleagues fled to join the British nuclear research program, discontinuing almost all of their research in fear of aiding the German nuclear weapons program.
In 1940, France fell to the advancing German forces. Joliot was extremely active in the French Resistance, becoming President of the National Front, and in 1942, he was a founding member of the French Communist Party, one of the leading anti-Nazi forces in France. Behind the facade of theoretical atomic physics research, Joliot used his labs to produce explosives and radios for the Resistance. For his bravery, honour, and tireless work during the Occupation, Joliot was named as a commander of the Legion of Honour with a military title, and awarded the Croix de Guerre.
If the government doesn't fire me after what I've said, I don't know what more they need. - Frédéric Joliot-Curie to his friends, April 1950
After the Occupation, Joliot was President of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, before President de Gaulle appointed him High Commissioner of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission. Here Joliot put his theoretical studies of atomic piles to use and by the end of 1948 had built the first reactor in France.
In April 1950, during the Cold War, Joliot was removed from his position as Commissioner because of his history with the Communist Party. Almost immediately he was elected the founding president of the World Peace Council, whose first campaign was to collect signatures on a world-wide petition for the abolishment of nuclear weapons.
Joliot continued his research until the end of his life. Keeping his chair at Collège de France, Joliot also took over his wife's positions as Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Sorbonne and Director of the Institut de Radium, after Iréne's death in 1956 from leukemia contracted in the course of her work. He survived his wife by two years, dying in 1958 of a liver condition almost certainly caused from over-exposure to radiation.
During the course of his career Joliot was awarded many honours, including a number of honorary doctorates, by universities world-wide. He was a member of the French Academy of Sciences and of the Academy of Medicine as well as innumerable other foreign and domestic academies and associations, whilst being a decorated war hero. In 1994 IUPAC proposed element 105 be named joliotium in his honour, but the name dubnium was eventually chosen in 1997 among much controversy.
The couple were survived by their daughter, Helene, and son, Pierre. Both he and his beloved wife were given full state funerals.
JudyT for joliotium.
- Thanks to
- Frederic Joliot-Curie, Maurice Goldsmith; Lawrence & Wishart, 1977, ASIN 0853153426 (Out of Print)
- La Recherche Passionnement, Pierre Joliot; O. Jacob, 2001, ISBN 2738109403 (Out of Print)
During my research for this biography, I came across many directly conflicting accounts and 'facts' about the Joliot-Curies, and often only in French. This is as complete a reconstruction I could make, from as reputable sources as I could find. Please, buzz me if I need to amend or add anything.