It’s ridiculous to imagine how the privileged and influential people spent fortunes on radium-infused distilled water touted as a cure for various diseases.
William J.A. Bailey became wealthy from his radium-laced patent drug Radithor, which murdered a prominent sportsman and socialite in 1932. The controversy aided in the modernization of radioactive material control.
Radithor, distilled water containing two radioactive chemicals, radium, and mesothorium, is probably the most well-known example of radioactive quackery. It was sold in small 2 oz bottles and was guaranteed to have at least one microcurie of Ra-226 and Ra-228.
Bailey claimed that the tonic offered customers an energy boost and treated dozens of diseases, including anorexia, hysteria, and insomnia. According to a Radithor ad, “in this bottle resides the greatest medicinal force known to mankind— radiation.” That turned out to be incorrect, as evidenced by the horrible destiny of Radithor’s most ardent consumer.
When former U.S. national amateur golf champion Eben Byers injured his arm in 1928, his doctor advised him to drink Radithor. He used three bottles of Radithor every day for two years and was so happy with the results that he gave cases to his friends, held it on board for his ladies, and even fed it to his racing horses.
Byers was adamant that the Radithor was the real reason behind his energy and overall health, and he couldn’t suggest the tonic enough. So he drank 1,400 bottles of Radithor before succumbing to the effects in 1930.
As a result of the so-called “energy drink,” Byers’ teeth fell out, and his overall health began to suffer. His bones began to rot. Byers was diagnosed with radium poisoning by Frederick Flinn, who had tested Grace Fryer for U.S. Radium in 1925. A lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission investigating fraud accusations against Bailey interviewed Byers in 1931 and was shocked by the businessman’s condition.
According to Winn’s report, Eben Byers’ entire lower jaw and chin rotted away due to radium poisoning. Only two teeth protruded from a bone piece beneath his nose, and holes in his head exposed his brain.
“A more gruesome experience in a more gorgeous setting would be hard to imagine,” Winn wrote in a 1932 edition of Time Magazine. “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.”
In 1932, Eben Byers died and was buried in a lead-lined coffin to prevent radioactivity from leaking from his bones. In 1965, an MIT scientist dug up his bones to see how radioactive they were, and the results astounded him.
Radithor’s collapse began with the death of Eben Byers. In addition, the accompanying lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission served as a final death sentence. However, Radithor still had supporters, including medical specialists, but the authorities’ “cease and desist” order mercifully ended its production as a “healthy” tonic.
Radithor was manufactured from 1918 until 1928, and the amount of harm it caused to users, aside from Eben Byers’ death, is undocumented. According to experts, the fact that it was an expensive curative therapy meant that only the wealthy could afford it reduced the damage it could have caused.
According to Robley Evans, a specialist in measuring radioactivity, Byers’ bones had a radioactivity of roughly 100,000 becquerels when he got buried. The expert estimated that the exhumed remains would contain the same level of radiation as before because radium has a half-life of 1,600 years. Only the skeleton remnants have 225,000 becquerels in total.
Evan’s estimation may be explained by one of two factors: whether radium’s affinity for bone was underestimated, or Byers took much more Radithor than expected. His bones were resealed in the lead-lined coffin, where they are still radioactive.