A Cure for the Living Dead

If ever there was a living embodiment of the Roaring 20s, it was Eben Byers. The scion of a New York steelmaking fortune, Byers indulged in every hobby and luxury his wealth and social status allowed. He kept luxury homes across the United States, collected fine art, owned stables of racehorses, held titles in trap shooting, and even won the national amateur golf championship in 1906. He was also an infamous ladies’ man, earning the nickname “Foxy Grandpa” from his classmates at Yale University. But in October 1930, this charmed life came to an abrupt end when Byers began losing weight and suffering excruciating headaches. Then, his teeth began falling out. Two years later, Byers would die horribly disfigured, his bones literally disintegrating from the inside out. The culprit was a popular tonic laced with the radioactive element Radium, which Byers consumed daily for nearly two years. Byers’ gruesome death sparked a nationwide scandal, and brought to a close the early 20th Century’s bizarre mania for all things radioactive.

Ebenezer McBurney “Eben” Byers was born on April 12, 1880, the son of industrialist Alexander Byers. The elder Byers had made his fortune manufacturing wrought iron pipe, and eventually passed on his business empire to his son. Over his short but successful career, Eben Byers also served as chairman of the Girard Iron Company and Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing, and maintained interests in the coal, shipping, and banking industries. Though celebrated as a virile and athletic young man, by the 1920s Byers was nearing his 50s, and his friends observed that his performance wasn’t all that it used to be – both on the field and off. Then, in 1927, Byers was travelling home from a Harvard-Yale football game when his train came to an abrupt stop, causing him to fall out of his sleeping berth and injure his arm. Over the following weeks, Byers complained of muscle pains, tiredness, and sexual dysfunction, leading him to seek the advice of Pittsburgh physician C.C. Moyar. Moyar recommended that Byers try out a brand-new miracle tonic: Radithor.

Radithor was one of hundreds of radioactive consumer products which flooded the American market at the turn of the 20th Century. In 1898, French scientists Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the element Radium, which emitted an invisible and mysterious form of energy: radioactivity. This discovery captured the public’s imagination, and entrepreneurs wasted no time in capitalizing on people’s obsession with all things radioactive. Though the element had several legitimate uses such as self-illuminating clock dials and cancer therapy, large quantities of Radium and other radioactive isotopes were incorporated into a dizzying variety of dubious and often dangerous products. Consumers could buy “Revigators”, ceramic jars lined with Uranium ore that infused water with radioactive radon gas, whose advertising literature claimed that water without radioactivity was “devoid of its life element.” Radium was added to toothpaste, bath salts, face cream, cigarettes, bread, and suppositories; you could even buy Radium-laced condoms for extra vigour in the bedroom. As with the craze for electrical cures a generation before, the logic behind these products was that an energy source as powerful as radioactivity must have health-giving properties. However, due to its rarity, Radium was extremely expensive, and not all companies could afford to acquire it. Thus, for every product that actually contained Radium, there were a dozen others that contained none at all and simply used the terms “radium” and “radioactive” in their marketing. Ironically, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, more concerned with false advertising than public safety, cracked down on these pretenders, allowing only genuine radioactive products to be sold. And among the most successful and potent of these was Radithor.

Radithor was the brainchild of one William John Bailey, a businessman and long-time con artist from Boston. Though he only completed three semesters before dropping out, Bailey claimed to have graduated from Harvard Medical School, and would often style himself as Doctor William Bailey. Throughout his colourful career, Bailey engaged in a number of fraudulent business ventures, including the Carnegie Engineering Corporation – an automobile company that produced no automobiles – and “Las-I-Go for Superb Manhood”, a supposed cure for impotence. In both cases Bailey was convicted of fraud and imprisoned. In 1923, Bailey jumped on the radium bandwagon and founded American Endocrine Laboratories in New York City, whose main product was the Radiendocrinator, a radium-infused skin patch intended to stimulate the endocrine glands such as the thyroid and the adrenals. Bailey later founded other radium-based ventures, including the Adrenoray Company, Bioray Company, Thoronator Company, and – by far his most successful – Bailey Radium Laboratories, based in East Orange, New Jersey. Formed in 1925, BRL’s main product was Radithor, a tonic composed of triple-distilled water laced with 1 microcurie – 37,000 decays per second – of the isotopes Radium 226 and Radium 228. Advertised as “Perpetual Sunshine” and “A Cure for the Living Dead”, was sold as a cure for over 150 ailments, including lethargy and impotence. Indeed, a promotional pamphlet titled Radithor, the New Weapon of Medical Science, claimed that:

An improved blood supply sent to the pelvic organs and tonic effects upon the nervous system generally result in a great improvement of the sex organs.”

Bailey sold Radithor in one-ounce bottles for $1 each – around $15 dollars today – netting him a handsome 400% profit. Ever the savvy salesman, Bailey gave a 16% kickback to doctors for every dose they prescribed to their patients, and offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who could prove that his product contained less than the stated amount of Radium. No one ever did. Bailey would go on to sell over 400,000 bottles of Radithor, making him a very wealthy man.

Following his 1927 visit to Dr. Moyar, Eben Byers began drinking two bottles of Radithor a day, and immediately noticed an improvement in his health. Reporting that the tonic gave him a “toned-up feeling”, Byers became functionally addicted to Radithor and began singing its praises to anyone who would listen, sending cases to business partners and girlfriends and even feeding Radithor to his racehorses. But this apparent comeback was short-lived, and in October 1930 Byers stopped consuming Radithor when his teeth began falling out. It is now known that when Radium is ingested, the body mistakes it for Calcium and incorporates it into the victim’s bones. Here, the Alpha and Gamma radiation emitted by the radium is deposited directly into the victim’s tissues, leading to necrosis and tumour formation. This same ailment afflicted many young women hired to paint self-illuminating radium paint on clock and watch dials. These women would often lick the tips of their paintbrushes to sharpen them, causing them to absorb large doses of radium.

But the doses consumed by the Radium Girls were mild compared to Eben Byers. Over the course of two years, Byers consumed an estimated 1,400 bottles of Radithor or 36 micrograms Radium – nearly four times the average lethal dose. And the effects on his body were ghastly. In 1931, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission launched and investigation against Bailey Radium Laboratories, and called for Byers to testify before the investigative committee. By this time, however, Byers was too ill to appear in person, so attorney Robert Winn was sent to his Long Island mansion to take his statement. Winn later recounted the disturbing scene: “A more gruesome experience in a more gorgeous setting would be hard to imagine…[I] discovered him in a condition which beggars description. Young in years and mentally alert, he could hardly speak. His head was swathed in bandages. He had undergone two successive operations in which his whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was slowly disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull.”

Based on Byers’s testimony – and that of other long-term Radithor users- on December 19, 1931, FTC issued a statement against Bailey Radium Laboratories, ordering the company to: “…cease and desist from various representations theretofore made by them as to the therapeutic value of Radithor and from representing that the product Radithor is harmless.”

Bailey chose not to contest the charges, and promptly shut down BRL. But, incorrigible entrepreneur to the end, he immediately founded a new company, the Radium Institute, and went right back to selling radioactive quack cures. In 1937, however, he abandoned radium and became a partner in the Lee Kelpodine Company, Inc, which sold tablets made of compressed seaweed. But even this seemingly mundane product didn’t save Bailey from legal trouble, as the company’s claims that their products could cure 32 different ailments caused them to run afoul of the newly-created Food and Drug Administration. So far as is known, Kelpodine was the last product Bailey was involved in marketing. Yet despite moving on from radium, Bailey continued to insist that Radithor was perfectly safe, arguing that: I have drunk more radium water than any man alive and I never have suffered any ill effects.”

William Bailey died of bladder cancer in 1949, aged 64. When his body was exhumed in the early 1960s, it was found to be dangerously radioactive.

Despite the gruesome evidence, many others also refused to believe that Radithor was harmful. James Walker, mayor of New York City and active Radithor consumer, initially resisted warnings to stop drinking the tonic, while Dr. C.C. Moyar, who had prescribed Radithor to Eben Byers, stated in his testimony to the FTC:The statement of a New York physiotherapist to the effect 100 patients of a Pittsburg physiotherapist were suffering from radium poisoning was an absolute lie. I am the physiotherapist referred to. I never had more than a dozen patients on radium water at any one time. I never had a death among my patients from radium treatment… I have taken as much or more radium water of the same kind Mr. Byers took and I am 51 years old, active and healthy… I believe that radium water has a definite place in the treatment of certain diseases and I prescribe when I deem it necessary…. [Mr. Byers died] from a combination of blood diseases which had induced gout.”

Despite these protests, the FTC investigation and the public scandal it unleashed effectively put an end to the radium craze in America. Ironically, Radithor’s high price prevented it from causing a larger public health disaster, as only well-heeled customers like Eben Byers could afford to consume it on a regular basis. But this must have been little comfort to Byers. As his body continued to disintegrate, doctors attempted to remove the necrotic tissue from his face and build him a new jaw so he would look less disfigured. Mercifully, one side effect of the radium poisoning was to destroy the nerves in Byers’s face, meaning he felt relatively little pain. But in the end, the massive radium dose proved too much for his body to handle, and Byers died at New York’s Doctors’ Hospital on March 31, 1932, aged 52. He was buried at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, his body being sealed in a lead-lined coffin to prevent the radioactivity in his body from leaking out.

In 1964, MIT physicist Robley Evans exhumed Byers’s body and measured his whole-body radium burden at 6 microcuries. As Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, the levels in Byers’s body in 1965 were nearly identical to when he died in 1932. However, based on Byers’ reported Radithor consumption and standard models of radium uptake, Evans predicted that his body should only have contained 2.7 microcuries. This meant that either the standard models were wrong or that Byers had underestimated his consumption by a factor of at least two. But the real question, according to Mark Bellerive and John Humm, researchers at the Harvard Joint Centres who analyzed Byers’s remains in 2016, was: “…how did Byers survive so long, feeling so good, and have such a super-lethal burden in his body?…He took enough radium to kill four people if he took it all at once.”

However, even today, the effects of radiation on the human body remain poorly understood, with certain people being able to absorb massive doses with seemingly no ill effect. But if the gruesome case of Eben Byers has taught us anything, it’s that if you feel your performance – athletic or otherwise – start to wane, best stick to Gatorade.

Speaking of athletes, why not check out our video on the two Nazi brothers who got in a fight, with the result being Adidas and Puma. It’s super interesting, I promise.

Expand for References

Revigator (ca. 1924-1926), Oak Ridge Associated Universities Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity, https://www.orau.org/health-physics-museum/collection/radioactive-quack-cures/jars/revigator-1924-1926.html

Radiator (ca. 1928), Oak Ridge Associated Universities Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity, https://www.orau.org/health-physics-museum/collection/radioactive-quack-cures/pills-potions-and-other-miscellany/radithor.html

Tho-Radia Items (ca. 1950s), Oak Ridge Associated Universities Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity,https://www.orau.org/health-physics-museum/collection/radioactive-quack-cures/pills-potions-and-other-miscellany/tho-radia-items.html

What Were They Drinking? Researchers Investigate Radioactive Crock Pots, NIST, January 12, 2010, https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2010/01/what-were-they-drinking-researchers-investigate-radioactive-crock-pots

Gray, Theodore, For That Healthy Glow, Drink Radiation! Popular Science, August 2004, https://books.google.ca/books?id=yaHf5PavpB8C&pg=PA28&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Jorgensen, Timothy, When ‘Energy’ Drinks Actually Contained Radioactive Energy, The Conversation, November 2, 2016, https://theconversation.com/when-energy-drinks-actually-contained-radioactive-energy-67976

Winslow, Ron, The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off, The Wall Street Journal, November 1991, https://web.archive.org/web/20181214144013/http://case.edu/affil/MeMA/MCA/11-20/1991-Nov.pdf

Radium Drinks, TIME, April 11, 1932, https://web.archive.org/web/20071113070153/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,743525,00.html

Giacomazzo, Bernadette, The Gruesome Death of Eben Byers, The Early 1900s Golfer Who Drank Radium Until His Jaw Fell Off, All That is Interesting, July 11, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/eben-byers

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