In 1927, Eben Byers, a wealthy American socialite, athlete, industrialist, and Yale College graduate, fell off the bed of a train and injured his arm, which would have impaired his performance in sports and his daily activities. To ease the pain, a doctor prescribed him a drink called ‘Radithor’.
Radithor – a cure for the living dead!
In the early 1900s, the radioactive element Radium was believed to have highly curative properties. J.J. Thompson, the man who discovered the electron, wrote about the presence of radioactivity in well water in 1903. This lead to the discovery that many of the world’s most famous health springs were radioactive due to “radium emanation” – radon gas – in the ground where the water flowed.
This was widely accepted in the scientific community back then. They believed that the radiation coming from the springs was responsible for its healing powers and therapeutic effects.
As a result, the radium water called Radithor was manufactured from 1918 to 1928 by the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc. of East Orange, New Jersey. The owner of the company and head of the laboratories was William J. A. Bailey, a dropout from Harvard College, who was not a medical doctor. It was advertised as “A Cure for the Living Dead” as well as “Perpetual Sunshine”. The expensive product was claimed to cure impotence among other ills, including chronic diarrhea, pain due to injuries, insanity, aging, and so on.
Radithor worked fine
By coincidence or placebo, Byers’ pain disappeared and he attributed it to the miraculous healing of Radithor, which was essentially radio diluted in water. It consisted of triple distilled water containing at a minimum 1 microcurie each of the radium 226 and 228 isotopes.
After that, Byers convinced himself of the tremendous benefits of the drink and moved on to sending boxes of the product to co-workers and girlfriends. He even gave Radithor to his horses. He himself claimed to have drank 1,400 bottles of 15ml (which was very expensive). It really worked fine.
After a few years, Byers was going to go through the most bizarre and miserable period of his life. He started losing weight, having headaches and many of his teeth started falling out: All of Byers upper jaw except two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw just fell out. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was disintegrating and holes were forming in his skull. He knew his case was terminal weeks before he died at age 51, when only six of his top teeth still remained in his body.
Byers died on March 31, 1932, from radium poisoning and various types of cancers also as an inevitable consequence of Radithor use.
What happened next?
For the next few decades, the radioactive charlatanism industry had still been asserting its usefulness in the medical field, gradually trying to expand itself into the market. But when Byers’ body was exhumed in 1965 for study, it just shocked the medical world.
Byers’ remains were still highly radioactive and measured at 225,000 becquerels (1 becquerels = one nucleus decays per second). As a comparison, the roughly 0.0169 g of potassium-40 present in a typical human body produces approximately 4,400 becquerels. When talking about radioactivity in food products, 3,700 becquerels (bq) per kilogram of meat is a large number and consequently considered to be lethal.
After Byers’ death, many other doctors testified to the harmful effects of radiation; and this shocking find led to the strengthening of the Food and Drug Administration’s powers and the demise of most radiation-based patent medicines. To minimize the health risks to other people, Byers had to be buried in a lead casket.
What happened to its inventor?
On the other side, the inventor of Radithor, William J. A. Bailey, continuously insisted (even after Byers’ miserable death) that his drink was safe until he died of bladder cancer, in 1949. When medical researchers also exhumed his body 20 years later, they found that his intestines were ravaged by radiation and that his remains were still warm!