By the middle of the 17th century, the silver mines on the Czech/German border in the Krusné hory Mountains were mostly worked out and the meteoric fortunes of the town of Joachimsthal/Jáchymov were fast waning. The miners of Jáchymov called the pitch-black mineral they associated with declining silver reserves “pechblende,” a pun, since “pech” in German also means “bad luck,” but the bad luck was twofold—its other aspect associated the mineral with disease. In 1500, Agricola and Paracelsus, both physicians of note, wrote of an affectation of the lungs, a condition long familiar to the miners. Their average life expectancy was in the 40s, their longevity commonly shortened by lung ailments of various kinds. Women made lace veils for their men to keep the ore dust out of their lungs. Although these proved ineffective, lacemaking did become a later industry in the town. It would be centuries before a use was found for the pechblende.
Meanwhile, Jáchymov took up other activities for its survival. Mining turned to the extraction of cobalt, nickel and bismuth, cobalt being used as a highly profitable coloring agent in enamels for which a factory was built. From 1755 to nearly 1850, there was a modest resurgence of silver mining following the advent of new and improved mining methods. There was a large tobacco processing plant, lace making continued and corks were made. Then, in 1789, a German chemist discovered uranium oxide in the dumps of waste pitchblende, and that changed everything again. That newly found compound was excellent for the coloring process of glass and ceramics, and the old silver processing plant was converted to a uranium coloring production center. The waste pitchblende was the source from which nine different glazes were created that came to be in high demand worldwide. It was also the source from which the pure element was separated in 1824. A new ‘boom’ struck the town, but by the later 1800s, the good times failed again as new synthetic glazes proved cheaper to produce.
In 1867, a remarkable woman named Marya Salomee Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland. Eventually, attending the famous Sorbonne University in Paris, she was signing her name “Marie” to “seem more French.” She was an excellent student, securing scholarships, and completed her degrees in physics and mathematical sciences in 1894. Through a later research scholarship, she met Pierre Curie and they married in 1895. Marie Curie became fascinated by the discoveries of X-rays by German and French scientists and she and her husband began to work with uranium using measuring devices developed by Pierre. In 1898, they ordered 10 tons of waste from the Jáchymov uranium color factory, devised new protocols for separating its chemical constituents, and found that two of the components strongly emitted rays. By the end of 1898, they had named two new elements, polonium (named after Marie’s native country) and radium (from the Latin word for rays—radius). The discoveries disfigured Curie’s hands, made her the first female Nobel Prize winner, and eventually killed her (from leukemia).
Radium was at first regarded as a cure-all for a whole variety of ailments from arthritis to impotence and it found applications in many weird and wonderful products from cosmetics and luminous paint to chocolate and toothpaste until the dangers of radioactivity (a word coined by Marie Curie) became common knowledge in 1924. For a time in the early 1900s, Jáchymov was the major source of radium on the planet and the fortunes of the town soared until, once again, less expensive sources were found in the U.S. and Africa, and the lucrative market collapsed.
The mines around Jáchymov had always suffered from flooding by the ever-present water from underground springs. Without proper pumping and drainage, many shafts could not be worked. While the lung disorders killed miners, they found that certain other ailments benefitted from the natural waters. The water flowing from certain mines was radioactive and the holistic treatment of certain conditions such as arthritis gave rise to the construction of a major spa, The Radium Palace,1 in 1912, and many came to drink and bathe in the waters, inhale the air and be cured. Marie Curie herself visited in 1925.
In 1938, Germany annexed Czechoslovakia and the extensive uranium deposits around Jáchymov became important to the Nazi’s atomic research program. The mines were worked by the forced labor of French and Russian POWs. After the war, Soviet Russia took over the area and, as the atomic age blossomed, the uranium deposits came to be strategically vital to the interests of that nation and in high demand. Thus began the darkest chapter in Jáchymov’s history with the establishment of labor camps initially peopled by German POWs, but later by political prisoners and dissidents, all working under the harshest conditions. There were nine camps around Jáchymov involving over 60,000 prisoners with a survival rate of about 50 percent. Russia’s voracious appetite for uranium to fuel its armaments and nuclear reactors was such that houses in Jáchymov that used mine ore in their construction were demolished and the rubble processed for the residual uranium. Ironically, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” wrote his thesis on Jáchymov’s uranium-rich shafts.
Today, the town of 2,700 people is reinventing itself as a tourist destination, yet in another ironic twist, it does not currently accept dollars, only koruna, euros or rubles. In 2019, the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and although some of the charming old houses remain boarded up, tourism is increasing, or was, prior to the pandemic. There are several up-market spas you can attend to take the waters. Treatment for skeletal and circulatory disorders is undertaken in the radon baths, which, it is said, are under strict medical supervision to ensure the level of radioactivity in the waters does not exceed modern safety standards. The radon is said to have “anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, improving joint mobility and strengthening immunity.”
Boom and bust seems to be a natural law over time in the fortunes of neighborhoods, cities and empires, especially where there is a dependency on natural resources that are always finite. The pendulum of fate is never still. If you are looking for more irony, consider this: arguably both of the two most potent symbols of power in today’s world, the dollar and nuclear weapons, can be said to originate in the tiny mining town of Jáchymov, hidden away in a remote Czech valley.