She was born in Paris, France.
She studied at the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne but her education was interrupted by World War I during which she served as a nurse radiographer. After the War, she earned her doctorate in science, doing her thesis on the alpha rays of polonium.
In 1926 she married Frédéric Joliot (the couple both hyphenated their surnames) and collaborated with him on natural and artificial radioactivity, transmutation of elements, and nuclear physics. In 1935 they shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 1938 her research on the action of neutrons on the heavy elements, was an important step in the discovery of nuclear fission. She became Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1937, and in 1946 the Director of the Radium Institute.
A peace activist, she took a keen interest in women's rights, becoming a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and of the World Peace Council. She was the Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Sorbonne, and in 1936 the government of France appointed her as the Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research and ultimately she was named an Officer of the Legion of Honour.
Irene Joliot-Curie died in Paris from leukemia contracted in the course of her work.