Tag Archives: radium poisoning

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.  

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Horrific 20th Century Quack Medical Devices That Contained Radium

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, discovered radium, a radioactive element, back in 1898. However, people didn’t realize how dangerous the element was, and they began to use radium in household items. This led to radium in makeup, as well as in medical devices that claimed to cure everything from impotence to arthritis. However, what these quack devices actually led to was a plethora of surprisingly poisonous things, such as toothpaste, hair tonic, and suppositories. 

When people began dying of mysterious diseases, such as the ones suffered by the Radium Girls, who painted luminous watch dials with Undark, a radium-based paint that they wound up ingesting via their paintbrushes, doctors finally realized that radium was dangerous.

The history of radium poisoning is full of odd devices designed to improve one’s health and outer appearance. These everyday poisons were sold through magazine and newspaper ads – and in regular pharmacies. Thankfully, by the beginning of World War II, they had been phased out and are now an odd anecdote from American history. 

Radium-Lined Cups Were Used To Make Radioactive Beverages

Photo: Andrew Kuchling/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

These days, people drink bottled or filtered water. Back in the early 20th century, those who could afford it drank radioactive water. One popular way of making this water, which supposedly could cure many different ailments, involved the use of a metal cup or container that was lined with radium. Any water poured into the vessel was exposed to the radioactive material and picked up its properties. The Revigator was one such device; its makers claimed that it contained radon. Of course, this only “worked” if the device actually contained radium – many of the “radioactive” medical marvels on the market were scams. 

People Submerged Themselves In Radium-Laced Water At Spas

Photo: Eternalsleeper/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Going to spas and spending some time submerged in radioactive water was supposed to be an invigorating experience. In actuality, the natural radiation in these mineral hot springs might have made the spa goers feel relaxed – that is, until a few decades later when they realized that the “hot” water did more harm than good. During the time period, however, even reputable medical journals touted the healing abilities of radium and similar materials, and some claimed radium hot springs were a literal fountain of youth that could help slow the aging process. Some radium-filled hot springs are still in business today, but they limit people’s exposure to any radioactive elements in the water. 

Laying In Radioactive Sand Was A Treatment For Arthritis

Photo: André Castaigne/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the main byproducts of radium manufacturing is a fine-grained sand that is, of course, highly radioactive. Back in the early 1900s, before people realized how harmful exposure to it was, they claimed that exposure to the sand could successfully treat arthritis pain. Many spas opened up rooms where people could sit and rest their feet on the sand in the hopes of being cured. The ironic thing is that, even though people knew of the dangers that radioactivity could pose, these “Uranium Sitting Houses” were in business up through the 1950s. 

Men Placed Wax Coated Radium Rods In Their Urethras As A Cure For Impotence

Photo: Мосрекламсправиздат/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Men have always struggled with impotence. Now, there are medications like Viagra; back in the early 1900s, there were “bougies.” These were radium-laced wax rods that men inserted directly into their urethras to treat impotence. This treatment is now cringe inducing not only because of the way it took place, but also because placing radioactive material close to reproductive organs is a very bad idea. 

Radium Toothpaste Claimed To Make Teeth White And Shiny

Photo: Metaweb/CC-BY

Radium wasn’t just used in medical devices – it made its way into everyday beauty and household products as well. One of these hygienic products was toothpaste. According to ads, a small amount of radium in the toothpaste promised to make users’ teeth very white and super shiny. Whether or not it worked is up for debate, but what is known is that radioactive exposure can actually make one’s teeth fall out and result in a jaw rotting from the inside out. 

Radithor Supposedly Cured Impotence And Other Health-Related Woes

Photo: Sam LaRussa/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Radithor was a radium- and thorium-laced water that was sold in small vials. A few drops of it a day could cure impotence and “restore vigor” – or, so it purported to be the case. The product was made by Bailey Radium Laboratories of East Orange, New Jersey, who actually encouraged users to disprove its claims of containing the radioactive substances. The product was removed from the market after one heavy user who reportedly went through around three vials a day of the stuff, playboy Eben Byers, died a horrific death when his jaw disintegrated. 

Radium Suppositories Restored People’s “Vigor”

Photo: Mausweisel/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Speaking of restoring “vigor,” how about a radium suppository? These small, radioactive pellets were sold in boxes and claimed to help men with their impotence issues. Made by several different companies, including the Vital-O-Gland Company and the General Remedies Company, there is no proof that the suppositories actually contained any radioactive material, or that they worked as they were supposed to. Thank goodness.

Glasses With Radioactive Lenses Corrected Vision Problems

Photo: Conrad von Soest/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Before there was laser eye surgery, there were Dengen’s Radio-Active Eye Applicators. This device looked like a pair of simple spectacles, only instead of lenses, it had opaque pods that contained radium and other radioactive materials. Not only could they cure your eye ailments, claiming to repair things like nearsightedness and farsightedness, but they also took care of headaches and eye strain. What’s even more disturbing is the fact the eye applicators came in three different strengths. 

Tho-Radia Cosmetics Claimed To Brighten Skin

Photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Tho-radia was a line of makeup and skin creams that contained radium. It was heavily marketed to women in the United States and France, who purchased the items in the hopes that the product’s claims – to rejuvenate and brighten skin – were true. To add a little extra cachet to the brand, its creator,  Dr. Alfred Curie (no relation to Marie and Pierre Curie) put his name on the ads. 

Radium Emanation Bath Salts Cured Insomnia

Photo: Myron Metzenbaum/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Radium bath salts, which worked like modern-day bath salts – as in you dissolve them in your bath water before soaking in them – were sold as a cure for insomnia, various nervous disorders, and even rheumatism. What made them even worse (from a modern perspective, of course) was the fact that dissolving the radioactive bath salts would send small particles of them into the air, where they were also breathed into the lungs. These products were made by several different manufacturers, including the Denver Radium Service on what is now a Superfund site. 

Endocrine Glands Were Regulated With The Radiendocrinator

Photo: Hotel Will Rogers/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The endocrine system regulates the body’s hormone production. The glands in the endocrine system include those in the neck – the thyroid – as well as the pituitary gland in the brain. However, the horrifying detail here involves the glands that men would treat with the Radiendocrinator – their testes. Treatment via the Radiendocrinator involved holding the device in place sometimes for hours at a time, with the handy (and included) strap that resembled an athletic supporter. Ironically, the creator of the device, William J.A. Bailey, died of radiation-induced bladder cancer in 1949. 

Gout And Neuralgia Were Taken Care Of With Radium Tablets

Photo: Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Radium tablets are still a legitimate medical treatment for people suffering from various types of cancer. However, back in the late 19th century, these tablets were sold on pharmacy shelves and supposedly cured gout, neuralgia (stabbing nerve pain), and numerous other ailments. These radioactive tablets, sold under brand names like Arium and Radione, were taken daily by people who simply wanted to feel better or have “the strength of iron.” 

Radioactive Heating Pads Cured A Number Of Ailments

Photo: Noble M. Eberhardt/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A radioactive heating pad that was lined with radium claimed to cure everything from rheumatism to standard aches and pains. The instructions for this particular device include warming it up, keeping it dry, and then applying it to the area of the body that hurts. Users could supposedly leave it on for up to 12 hours a day, and they were even encouraged to roll it up around a painful body part, such as an ankle, and tie it into place. 

Uranium Blankets Helped With Arthritis P

Photo: Francis Mould/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

These days, uranium blankets are a part of nuclear reactors, and they aren’t even a little bit related to the therapeutic ones touted as cures for arthritis pain in the early 20th century. Those particular blankets looked like standard, quilted ones, only, within the fabric squares, were bits of uranium. These blankets were sold as cures up through the 1950s, even after the dangers of uranium exposure were well known. 

Radium Tonic Prevented Gray Hairs

Photo: Sinclair Tousey/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A product called Caradium was created in the early 1900s. It was a tonic that was applied to hair to prevent gray hairs from growing, thanks to the power of its active ingredient – radium. It also promised to make any current gray hairs revert back to their old color. Caradium was the invention of Frederick Godfrey, a man whose credentials included “hair specialist.” 

Vintage Shoe-Fitting X-Ray Machines Will Zap Your Feet

How do you tell if a shoe is a good fit? Take a short walk? Squeeze the front-end with your fingers to make sure there is space for your toes? What about a dangerous, 20-second blast of unshielded x-rays? If you were buying shoes in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it’s likely that you regularly inserted a tootsie into one of these death-rays.

The wooden cabinets, possibly first built by a Clarence Karrer in Milwaukee in 1924, had the x-ray source in the base, and it would fire upwards through your foot and shoe. Due to a lack of any kind of shielding, it wouldn’t stop there: the radiation would shoot right up into your baby-maker, clearly a perilous occurrence.

The machine, called a “Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope” put out 50 kv from its x-ray tube, which – according to Wikipedia’s figures for today’s machines, isn’t too bad:

In medical radiography voltage from 20 kV in mammography up to 150 kV for chest radiography are used for diagnostic. Energy can go up to 250 kV for radiotherapy applications.

The problem was repeat exposure. While it was recommended that children not be subjected to more than 12 doses a year, there was no such luck for shoe-store employees. According to the article Shoe-fitting with x-ray in National Safety News 62 by H. Bavley (1950), store clerks would put their hands into the beam to squeeze shoes during fitting. Worse still was the fate of a poor shoe model, “who received such a serious radiation burn that her leg had to be amputated.”

Thank God there’s nothing this dangerous around today. Like, you know, full-body backscatter x-ray machines in airports.

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