*Contrary to the almost every “expert” on the Internet, there are NO documented images of Eben Byers with advanced radiation sickness. Once diagnosed, Byers lived in relative seclusion until he passed away.
Handsome, wealthy, and sociable, 21-year-old Eben Byers became famous mostly for being himself. After graduating from Yale College in 1903, tall tales of his athletic and amorous exploits peppered regional and even national papers. Enjoying the good-natured notoriety, Byers shrugged off the stories with a wink and a smirk.
The press followed him as he placed in then finally won the US Amateur Championship in 1906 and tripped over themselves when the dashing young man left behind his dreams of athletic stardom to replace his father as the head of Pennsylvania’s Girard Steel Company (American industrialists of the early 1900s were essentially American royalty). The tireless Byers worked, partied, played, and caroused his way through life, always with the same wink and a smile.
But his reckless lifestyle caught up with him in 1927. Sound asleep on a railcar berth after attending a Yale football game (and likely intoxicated), Byers rolled off and slammed into the car floor’s, his entire body weight coming down on his arm.
Although the physical damage was minimal, his fall had pinched a nerve in his arm, causing him chronic pain. Byers’ lifestyle wouldn’t tolerate a constant opioid slump, so the young man turned to patent medicine to manage his pain. And he found one: Radithor.
Radium’s “Tingling” Feeling
Before NON-GMOs, gluten-free, organic, and other food labeling trends, there was RADIUM-INFUSED. Radium is a naturally-occurring, radioactive earth metal studied by Marie and Andre Curie. Symptoms of acute radiation sickness only manifested if exposure to radium was prolonged, which led unscrupulous patent medicine makers to claim the “tingling” feeling from ingesting or applying radium was beneficial. It is not. That “tingling” is gamma radiation beaming through flesh and bone and frying even the DNA of living cells.
For the first time since the discovery of radioactivity [Radithor] brings the blessings of radium water treatment of a highly scientific kind well within the reach of everyone … A child could take this product for years without the slightest injury.
~1926 endorsement from Dr. Charles Evans Morris, MD
The world didn’t know that in 1927, or at least didn’t known enough to regulate radiation pseudoscience. Products containing radium suddenly popped up everywhere. Makeup, clothing, condiments, water, suppositories…even jockstraps for “weak, sagging” men were suddenly available, all containing various but always dangerous quantities of radium or thorium.
Among the most popular products was sold by Harvard dropout William Bailey, who knew just enough about medicine to be dangerous. He claimed that by sprinkling radium salts into purified water, his product could stimulate the endocrine system and rid the body of a laundry list of maladies: diabetes, constipation, depression, anxiety, asthma…almost everything.
Byers’ Fatal Endorsement
When socialite and industrialist Eben Byers heard it could almost speed up the healing process, he didn’t hesitate to climb aboard, an endorsement William Bailey was delighted to have. After all, a modern American “superman” should know best. Coupled with this honest endorsement was his willingness to pay physicians “a convenience fee” for every dose of Radithor sold—each sold for $1 in 1927 (about $15 in 2020). Unscrupulous physicians gladly pushed the product.
From 1927 to 1930, Eben Byers drank several one-ounce bottles of Radithor a day. He loved the product so much he sent cases to business clients, friends, and family. He even dosed his thoroughbred race horses with Radithor. In the meantime, with the approval of doctors and Byers’ word-of-mouth efforts, Radithor had made William Bailey rich.
In his estimation, Byers ingested about 1400 bottles total (by most accounts, Byers had swallowed enough radium to kill three adult men). He only stopped when the brief stimulant effect of Radithor ended, replaced with weight loss, nausea, and headaches. Doctors examining Byers immediately recognized the aggressive cancer eating through Byers’ now-gaunt face. Years later, the effects would be called “radium jaw.”
The next year, an attorney shared a description of the 51-year-old ailing industrialist with Time Magazine, which was then putting together an article exposing radioactive quack medicine. Although Byers had long since gone into isolation, he agreed to speak with the attorney in an effort to warn the public.
Young in years and mentally alert, [Byers] 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.
~Attorney Robert Hiner Winn, 1930
In the spring of 1932, Eben Byers succumbed to his advanced radiation sickness. That he had lasted so long with such a high dose of radiation is a testament to his physical condition before Radithor. An autopsy showed that the radium accumulated in his bones had made his body dangerously radioactive.
Although he was interred in the family Masoleum, he would be the only member of the Byers family with a lead-lined casket. Decades later, officials would exhume his body briefly to understand the long-term effects of exposure on an individual. As soon as his casket was opened, Geiger counters crackled and twitched to life. The casket was hurriedly resealed and returned to the mausoleum.
The End of Radithor, but Not Radium
Blamed for Eben Byers death, William Bailey insisted his product could not possibly be at fault, since he himself had ingested as much if not more Radithor than Byers. His efforts came to nothing and his flagship product Radithor was immediately removed from the market.
Bailey resurrected his name during World War II as a manager for an office machine company that had developed electronic tabulation machines that would be used in every avenue of logistics during the war, from the development of new firearms to the Manhattan Project to the Census. The company, International Business Machines (IBM), is still around today.
Bailey himself died in 1949 at the respectable age of 64. Like Byers, Geiger counters went wild near his body, and he was interred with the same lead-lined care as Byers had, 17 years earlier.
Want to Know More?
Read “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until his Jaw Came Off” written by Wall Street Journal reporter and researcher Ron Winslow.
Check out this detailed history of Bailey’s infamous patent medicine in the article “Radithor (ca.1928)” from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (part of the Manhattan Project, oak Ridge manufactured the first plutonium).
Browse this database prepared for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission “Radium Historical Items Catalog” which contains virtually every patent product related to radioactive quackery.