Born in Paris, France, he was a graduate of the School of Chemistry and Physics of the city of Paris. In 1925 he became an assistant to Marie Curie, at the Radium Institute and would meet and marry her daughter Iréne Curie in 1926. Joliot obtained his doctorate in science, doing his thesis on the electrochemistry of radio-elements.
While a lecturer at the Paris Faculty of Science he collaborated with his wife on research on the structure of the atom, in particular on the projection of nuclei, which was an essential step in the discovery of the neutron. In 1935 they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
In 1937 he left the Radium Institute to become a professor at the Collège de France working on chain reactions and the requirements for the successful construction of a nuclear reactor that uses controlled nuclear fission to generate energy through the use of uranium and heavy water. At the time of the Nazi invasion in 1940, Joliot managed to smuggle his working documents and materials to England.
During the French occupation he took an active part in the French Resistance. After the War, he served as Director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and became France's first High Commissioner for Atomic Energy. In 1948 he oversaw the construction of the first French atomic reactor A devout Communist, in 1950 he was relieved of his duties for political reasons. Although he retained his professorship at the Collège de France, on the death of his wife in 1956, he took over her position as Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Sorbonne.
Frédéric Joliot was a member of the French Academy of Sciences and of the Academy of Medicine and named a Commander of the Legion of Honour. He devoted the last years of his life to the creation of a centre for nuclear physics at Orsay.