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Mother and Daughter Science Pioneers: Sklodowska-Curie and Joliot-Curie remembered on International Day of Medical Physics


Medical physicists performing quality control tests on a gamma camera used for diagnosis, IAEA Seibersdorf Laboratories, 2012. (Photo: K.Nikolic/IAEA)

The IAEA joins all medical physicists and the International Organization for Medical Physics (IOMP) in celebrating the 9th International Day of Medical Physics (IDMP) on 7 November. This day was chosen as international day to celebrate the medical physics profession and its achievements, because on this very day in 1867, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, known for her pioneering research on radioactivity, was born in Poland.

Although best known for her investigation of X rays in Uranium and the discovery of Polonium and Radium, Marie Sklodowska-Curie sought to combine the principles of physics with the field of medicine to diagnose and treat diseases, placing herself in a new field that we today call medical physics. Her foresight and practical approach resulted in the invention of portable X ray devices for diagnosis.

During World War I, Marie Sklodowska-Curie invented the first portable X ray device as she built a mobile X ray truck to help doctors diagnose soldiers. The 18-year-old Irène Curie, daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, was already working as a nurse for the Red Cross and – at the same time – was assisting her mother with running the mobile X ray units and teaching how to operate these X ray machines.

Ir­­ène grew up witnessing her parents’ strenuous commitment to science and its applications. She developed a key interest in science and started her research while working towards her doctorate as a lab assistant to her mother. She continued research on artificial radioactivity later with her husband Frédéric Joliot. The importance of their work was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, for the discovery of artificial radioactivity. As a result of Irène and Frédéric’s research, a method was developed that made it possible to create chemical compounds in the amounts needed for an application in medicine. This led to a field that we now identify as nuclear medicine and Joliot-Curie’s work is therefore very closely connected to medical physics, much like that of her mother’s.

Marie Sklodowska-Curie demonstrated with her work how new scientific discoveries can have innovative and fruitful applications, for instance in diagnosis and treatment of diseases. She set an example by encouraging her daughter and new generations to dedicate themselves to science. In this light, the IAEA started in 2020 the IAEA Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, aimed at helping increase the number of women in nuclear science and technology.

Medical physics is today a profession that supports the application of radiation medicine at its highest standard of safety, quality, and effectiveness. “Although international guidelines clearly state that medical physicists are part of the health workforce, medical physics has not yet achieved recognition as a profession worldwide,” says Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

To emphasize the importance of this recognition, the IAEA has a dedicated International Day of Medical Physics 2021 page on its Human Health Campus, containing relevant material and useful tools for use by experts across the world.

...international guidelines clearly state that medical physicists are part of the health workforce...
Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications

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