The Story Of The Man Who Died From Drinking Too Much Radium

Eben Byers was an amateur golfer, an alumnus of Yale, and a notorious ladies man, but he is most famous for literally rotting from the inside out after spending three years drinking radium-infused water.

When Byers fell and hurt his arm in 1927, he was prescribed Radithor, a radium-infused elixir sold by a quack doctor named William Bailey. Radithor was supposed to alleviate aches, pains, and even invigorate one sexually. Yet what happened to Byers fell far afield of the positive effects Radithor was supposed to have. Instead, after three years of incessant use, Byers began rotting from the inside. His teeth fell out; his jaw had to be removed; holes formed in his brain and skull; and he eventually perished in 1932 from radium poisoning. Like the ill-fated Radium Girls before him, Byers demonstrated the clear and unequivocal bodily evidence that exposure to radium was lethal.

Byers’s tragic death is a story of medical deception and overdose, and it serves as a cautionary tale that there is, in fact, too much of a good thing – especially if that good thing is actually completely lethal.   

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”

Photo: BlueShift 12/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

This was the title of a Wall Street Journal article that came out some time after Byers’s passing, succinctly summing up what happened to him. In 1927, Byers was on a train returning from a Harvard-Yale football game when he fell from his bunk and hurt his arm. The pain didn’t go away, so Byers’s doctor prescribed him Radithor.  

Radithor was simply radium dissolved in water, marketed as a healing tonic. At a time when radium-infused products were very popular, it was unsurprising that Byers was more than happy to take Radithor. In fact, Byers was so keen on the product and its supposed benefits that he ended up drinking three bottles every day for two years, until the poison caught up with him and began dissolving him from the inside out. 

William Bailey, The Man Who Prescribed Byers Radithor, Was A Known Fraud

Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/No Restrictions

William J.A. Bailey wasn’t a doctor, even though he claimed to be. He was a Harvard dropout who got rich quick after developing Radithor, a toxic solution of radium dissolved in water. He was a fraud who was repeatedly in trouble with the law and profited off numerous short-lived business start-ups.

The FDA shut down Bailey’s business, but Bailey had already done his damage. The amount of people who perished from Radithor is unknown, but he sold approximately 400,000 bottles of the tonic – 1,400 of which Byers himself purchased.

Byers Probably Took Radithor To Help His Performance In The Bedroom

Photo: Falk, NY/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The quick story is that Byers fell on a train, hurt his arm, took Radithor, and thought it made him better so he kept taking it. There is, though, perhaps another reason Byers was so enthusiastic about Radithor, to the point where he reportedly even gave cases of the stuff to his girlfriends and his race horses. 

Byers had a reputation as a ladies’ man. At Yale, his nickname was “Foxy Grandpa.” His fall on the train reportedly injured not only his arm, but also his game. Byers complained of a sort of “run-down feeling” that affected his athletic and sexual performance. That’s when Byers discovered a product on the market that claimed to solve all of these issues. The sexually reparative nature of Radithor was only rumored, but it is unsurprising that a man entering his 50s with a reputation for being popular with women would seek out anything to help him maintain his “Foxy Grandpa” status.  

Byers’s Horrific Death Ended The American Public’s Romance With Radium-Infused Products

Photo: Radior Cosmetics/New York Tribute Magazine/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The problem with touting radioactivity as curative was that it simply wasn’t true. Luckily, most of these quack elixirs were phony, and contained no radium at all (of course, this was not the case with Radithor). Still, there were myriad products on the market meant to be extremely good for you – there were radium-infused beauty creams, toothpastes, soaps, bars of chocolates – you name it.

The American public had an obsession with radium in the 1920s and ’30s that only faded after Byers’s passing brought the real dangers of radium to light.     

Byers’s Story Probably Got So Much Attention Because He Was A Handsome, Upper-Class Man

Photo: flickr/CC0

Eben Byers was the son of a well-known entrepreneur, and he was the chairman of his father’s steel company. He attended Yale, golfed, raced horses, and was popular with women. He was the perfect candidate for a tragic, newsworthy story – made even more fascinating and terrifying because he perished after drinking what was touted as a health tonic, completely available to the public. Everything about Byers’s story differs from the devastating story of the Radium Girls. 

The tragedy of the Radium Girls – female factory employees who became painfully sick and perished of radium poisoning – was well covered by the media, but was less compelling to the government than the story of Byers, a socialite in the public eye. It wasn’t until Byers told the Federal Trade Commission about Radithor, while on his deathbed, that radium was removed from the federally approved list of medicines.

The Idea To Drink Radioactive Water As An Elixir Came From The Restorative Powers Of Hot Springs

Photo: National Institute of Standards and Technology/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the 1920s, people knew about – and believed in – the healing powers of hot springs. When it was discovered that the water in hot springs was mildly radioactive, due to the radon gas dissolved in the water, it was concluded that it was the radioactivity that was so curative. In The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Dr. C.G. Davis claimed, “Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.” It was no wonder products infused with radium, such as candy, hair tonics, and even blankets, were so popular.

However, radon gas is entirely different from radium, the element found in Radithor. Radon gas has a half-life of about three days – radium has one of 1,600 years. Seeing as Byers took three times the already toxic dose of Radithor, he was irrevocably doomed.      

Byers Deteriorated Rapidly and Painfully, But He Kept Drinking Radithor

Photo: Metaweb/GNU Free Documentation License

For the first two years Byers took Radithor, he was so pleased with the supposed results that he took three times the suggested daily dose. But, after a while, he began feeling sick. He lost weight, had headaches, and had a blinding pain in his jaw. He had been diagnosed with inflamed sinuses, but once his teeth began to fall out and his jaw began to crumble, Byers knew something was terribly wrong. Byers’s X-ray was sent to a radiologist, who confirmed that Byers’s fate was inevitable – he had the same lesions on his jaw as the Radium Girls. Sadly, Byers was so indoctrinated to rely on Radithor that he kept drinking it, hoping it would help him feel better when he began feeling sick.

An attorney dispatched to Byers’s house shortly before his passing remembered the state Byers was in due to his radiation poisoning:

We went to Southampton where Byers had a magnificent home. There we 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 successful jaw operations and 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.

Byers Had Enough Radium In His Body To “Kill Three Men”

Photo: Rana/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

After Byers’s death, Popular Science Monthly wrote that Byers had the “largest amount of radium ever found in a human being – more than thirty micrograms, enough to kill three men.”

With symptoms such as blinding headaches, breaking bones, and a disintegrating jaw, Byers must have suffered immensely before he succumbed to radiation poisoning in 1932, five years after his first dose of Radithor.   

The Federal Trade Commission Accidentally Contributed To The Rise Of Radioactive Products

Photo: Mutter/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Back when radium was immensely popular in consumer products, the FDA had very little power to regulate it. Not falling under food or drugs, it was out of their jurisdiction.

There was one department, however, that had control over radium: the Federal Trade Commission. Their job was to stand against false advertising claims; this meant that the FTC worked very hard to make sure that all the products on the market actually contained radium. Their strict regulation ensured that all the products people were buying were genuinely radioactive.

Byers’s Demise Led To Stricter FDA Control

Photo: Andrew Huff/flickr/CC-BY-NC 2.0

As Byers fell ill, and it became clear Radithor was the culprit, the FTC opened an investigation. They sought to challenge Bailey’s claim that Radithor and other products like it were “harmless.” They wanted Byers to testify, but he was too sick. They dispatched an attorney to his home to take a statement, which is when the attorney found him literally rotting from the inside out. It didn’t take long after that for the FTC to shut down Bailey’s business. 

The results of the FTC’s investigation led to the FDA getting more power over investigating suspicious health claims. Eventually, the FDA gained control over the entire pharmaceutical industry. 

Bailey Succumbed To His Own Lies, But It Was Only Discovered After His Death

Photo: UpperKasegirl/Youtube

Until the end, Bailey denied Radithor had anything to do with Byers’s demise. He claimed he had drunk more Radithor than Byers himself, and he was living proof that his “healing tonic” was perfectly safe.

Yet when his body was exhumed 20 years after his death from bladder cancer, medical researchers discovered his remains were riddled with radiation. His corpse was described as “still hot” after being unearthed.  

Reference

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