Something disturbing was happening inside Occupied France in 1944.
The Germans were rounding up France’s entire supply of thorium. And that had the Allies’ big brass scared down to their socks. While America was working on the atomic bomb, it was equally concerned the Nazis might be doing likewise. The fact that they were so suddenly and keenly obsessed with the radioactive element was troubling.
Had Hitler devised a way to use thorium to refine the uranium needed to produce a Big Shiny One? Nightmares of London and New York disappearing beneath mushroom clouds danced in the Allies’ heads.
So, they set out to discover just what was going on. And the answer they got turned out to be hilarious.
But first, we must go back a bit to what historians call the Age of Radioactive Quackery. (Yes, that really is a thing.)
Radiation was all the rage in the late 19th century. X-rays were discovered in 1896 and radioactive decay came the next year. It seemed a door was suddenly flung open to a new world of scientific possibilities.
Unfortunately, a wave of high-tech charlatanism came with it. It wasn’t so much outright fraud as it was naivety assisted by scruples-challenged entrepreneurs who didn’t bother to look before they leaped. An array of radioactive powders, creams, and liquid concoctions hit the marketplace with few, if any, undergoing proper screening first.
Consider the sad case of Pittsburgh millionaire industrialist, socialite, athlete, and all-around and bon vivant Ebenezer “Eben” Byers. After he injured his arm falling out of a railroad car sleeping berth in his late 40s he heard about the mystical restorative powers of Radithor, a patent medicine pushed by a Harvard Medical School dropout.
Byers felt buoyed by the extra energy the liquid radioactivity provided. Until he started feeling tired. And his teeth began falling out. Then his hair went. Eventually, his lower jaw fell off. It was an agonizing way to go. Some 1,400 doses of Radithor later, Byers was eventually planted in Allegheny Cemetery (inside a lead-lined coffin to keep his radioactive remains from contaminating others.)
Despite that and other cautionary tales, the public remained cautiously intrigued by radioactivity’s potential in daily life.
Fast forward to the summer of 1944. After successfully landing at Normandy in June, Allied forces were slogging their way through the heart of France. As they neared the capital, informants inside Paris reported their country’s entire thorium supply was being shipped to Germany. The Allies’ interest in what was going on with it was becoming an obsession.
Which was where Col. Boris Pash got involved.
A no-nonsense, take-charge guy, he led a special military team associated with the security branch of the Manhattan Project, the folks secretly working on the bomb. Pash’s men followed the Allied armies rounding up all the scientific material and information they came across.
When Paris was recaptured in August, Pash learned about a German company named Auer-Gessellschaft. Though it primarily made war-related equipment like gas masks, it was also involved in uranium projects. It had seized a small company that controlled all the thorium in France. And the entire supply had been whisked off to Germany ahead of the Allied arrival.
Pash learned Auer’s French company had been run during the occupation by a German named Peterson, a real-life version of “Hogan’s Heroes” bumbling Col. Klink. His secretary, Fraulein Wessel, was the brains of the operation.
Pash discovered she was in the Belgian border town of Eurpen which the Allies had just seized. Without either authority or a minute to lose, he impulsively raced there. His audacious action paid off. Not only did he find Fraulein Wessel but he also bagged Herr Petersen who was visiting her.
They sang like canaries. Yes, they admitted, Auer had sent the thorium to Germany. But it wasn’t for a bomb. It was to make—toothpaste!
Auer’s honchos realized Germany would lose the war and were already looking for ways to make money afterward. They had been impressed by the profitability of Doramad, a popular pre-war brand that advertised itself as a radioactive toothpaste. And it did, indeed, contain trace amounts of the mildly radioactive element thorium. Doramad proudly boasted in its extensive advertising that it (supposedly) fought bacteria to protect teeth and gums. The bomb, it turned out, had never entered Auer’s thinking.
The Atomic Age arrived the next year, instantly obliterating both two cities and any remaining consumer interest in radioactive products.
And Auer, it should be noted, went on to specialize in making supplies used in mining operations. Not toothpaste.