The forgotten Curies

Jamie Gallagher, Oct 13

How many Curies can you name? Marie Curie is probably a given, perhaps her Nobel prize winning husband Pierre too? But there are many more with equally impressive achievements under their belts. Some Families have family businesses- mine ran a shop- no one can deny that the family business of the Curies was science.


Let’s start with the famous dream duo Marie and Pierre. Together they studied and advanced the field of radioactivity and were the joint winners of the physics Nobel Prize for physics in 1903. This wasn’t the first collaborative venture for Pierre. In the late 18 hundreds Pierre was working with his brother Paul-Jacques Curie and together they laid the foundations of piezoelectrics.

Piezoelectrics is an increasingly important area of research now. A piezoelectric material is one which when exposed to changes in pressure it produces an electrical current. Today scientists investigate putting these materials in the sole of shoes so that with each bouncing step we take we would produce a tiny jolt of electricity- just enough perhaps to power some of the electrical devices we depend on.  All made possible because of the foundations laid by the Curie brothers.


Let’s move one generation forward in time: Marie and Pierre’s children- Irene and Eve. Irene followed almost exactly in her mother’s footsteps: marrying a scientist (Frédéric Joliot); pursuing radioactivity and just like mum and dad winning a joint Nobel Prize (chemistry 1935). When she married her and her husband both took the second name Joliot-Curie. This gives a total of 5 Nobel prizes bearing the Curie name and also giving rise to the only mother daughter winners. Irene was the world’s first alchemist. Her research showed the transformation of one element to another through artificial bombardment with radioactive particles. Interestingly she studied her doctorate under Paul Langevin, the man whom Marie had a notorious affair with in 1910.

Irene’s sister Eve took a somewhat different path... Eve never showed much interest in science but showed more aptitude for the arts. In fact Eve was the only non-scientist in the Curie family and (somewhat sadly) the only one not to win a Nobel prize. In fact even here husband Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr was to collect a Nobel Peace prize on behalf of UNICEF. I’m sure Eve bore this without much resentment she was a well respected writer and war correspondent. Perhaps you could even argue that Eve made a sensible choice. Without the dangers of radioactivity that killed her mother and sister Eve lived to the ripe old age of 102 (Irene died aged 58).


There is still one more generation to come in the story I’m telling here. Irenes children. These grandchildren of Marie and Pierre bear the name Joliot-Curie and are; you may have guessed it- scientists. Both of Irene’s two children are both alive today and both are noted professors. Pierre Joliot-Curie is a biologist and a member of the Légion d'honneur . Irene’s daughter: Helene Joliot-Curie like her mother and her grandmother before here pursued radioactivity and is a nuclear physics and adviser to the French government.


It seemed to me that the Curie family tree was to hold one last little surprise for me and that was Helene’s husband. Michel Langevin. We’ve heard the Langevin name before and Michael is indeed the grandson of Paul Langevin. Paul Langevin,  the man who had an affair with Marie and caused an angry mob to form outside her house. Paul Langevin, the man who guided Irene through her doctoral studies.


It seems to me that there are three things that run through the Curie family: Science, greatness and a love of Langevin men.


Paul Jacques Curie