Fred Joliot
For his hard and dangerous secret work during the war, Joliot, shown here just after the Occupation, was named a commander of the Legion of Honor with a military title and awarded the Croix de Guerre.

The End of the Curie Hold on French Science

FRED WAS A HERO IN THE WAR. Pretending to be busy with theoretical atomic physics, he risked his life by using his lab to manufacture explosives and radio equipment for the Resistance. After the liberation of France, he was appointed director of the National Center for Scientific Research. Meanwhile he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences. Soon thereafter he became head of the French Atomic Energy Commission. His task was to make France a world leader in the nuclear industry. Irène became not only a commissioner but also the director of the Radium Institute.

But the Joliot-Curies' political activities led to their political downfall. In spring 1942 Fred had secretly joined the French Communist party, at that time a leading anti-Nazi force. Although Irène never became a member, she sympathized with many movements in which French Communists took a lead, including support of equal rights for French women.

At the height of the Cold War, Fred was dismissed from his position at the French Atomic
Energy Commission. A few months later Irène also lost her post as commissioner.


“Progressive scientists and communist scientists shall not give a jot of their science to make war against the Soviet Union...we shall hold firm, sustained by our conviction that in so doing we serve France and all of humanity.”
--Joliot's address at the French Communist Party's 12th National Congress, April 1950

Joliot in 1950
Joliot, shown here speaking in public in 1950, realized that his outspoken pro-Communist views would be his undoing. In April 1950, he told his friends, “If the government doesn't fire me after what I've said, I don't know what more they need.”
Irene Curie in 1953
Photographed at an international scientific meeting in Stockholm in July 1953, Irène was denied a hotel room by city innkeepers who disapproved of her political views.

The Curie family's domination of French nuclear physics had come to an end. The Joliot-Curies never abandoned their efforts to promote world peace. Irène continued to work in her lab until a few months before her death. But largely as a result of her efforts, a new scientific facility at Orsay, south of Paris, soon replaced the Radium Institute as France's nuclear research center. Fred kept his chair at the prestigious Collège de France, which he had held since 1937, and accepted Irène's chair at the Sorbonne after her death. He survived his wife by only two years. He succumbed to a liver disease, perhaps induced by radiation. Both Joliot-Curies were given state funerals.


Next:
About This Exhibit

Also:
Further Reading and Links

© 2000 - American Institute of Physics