The Strange Fate of Eben Byers

Fall Guy

In November 1927, a wealthy industrialist named Eben Byers was returning from the annual Harvard-Yale football game aboard a special chartered train. Yale won the game 14-0, and Byers was a Yale alumnus. It’s not clear whether the celebratory atmosphere aboard the train (or Byers’s reputation as a ladies’ man) had anything to do with it, but sometime during the trip he fell out of his upper sleeping berth and injured his arm. The injury interfered with Byers’s golf game and his love life. He visited on doctor after another, but no one could ease his pain. Then a physician in Pittsburgh suggested he try Radithor, a patent medicine (which consisted of little more than the element radium in a distilled water solution).

Radithor was a product of the Bailey Radium Laboratory of East Orange, New Jersey, found by one “Dr.” William Bailey, a Harvard dropout who falsely claimed to have a medical degree from the University of Vienna. In 1915 he had served time in jail for mail fraud. A few years later, after a stint peddling strychnine, the active ingredient in rat poison, as an aphrodisiac under the brand name Las-I-Go For Superb Manhood, he began selling Radithor as “Pure Sunshine in a Bottle.” He claimed it would cure more than 150 different ailments.

Hot Stuff

Drinking radioactive water to improve health may sound crazy today, but in the 1920s, when much less was known about radiation, it seemed to make sense. People had long wondered what gave natural hot springs their supposed healing properties. When the waters were found to be mildly radioactive due to the presence of dissolved radon gas in t he water (an hour’s soak in a hot spring exposed the soaker to as much radiation as an hour in the sunshine), the radon appeared to be the explanation.

It wasn’t just quacks like Bailey who thought radiation was good for you. In an article in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, a Dr. C. G. Davis claimed that “radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.” Other experts credited radiation with stimulating the body to throw off waste products.

Drink to your health

Water from natural hot springs was bottled and sold as a health tonic, but devotees claimed that the bottled stuff lost most of its healing properties after just a few days. This, too, appeared to be explained by the radon, which has a radioactive half-life of just 3.8 days. That means that half of the radon will decay into other substances in that time. At that rate, less then 1 percent of the radon would remain in the water after just one month.

If the radioactivity in spring water was what made it so beneficial, the thinking went, then water that had gone “flat” could be recharged by reirradiating it. There were numerous products on the market in the 1920s that enabled you do just that: You could buy a Zimmer Radium Emanator that, when dunked in a Revigator water crock, made from radioactive core.

All better now

Why stop with water? Companies sold radioactive hair tonic, face cream, toothpaste (for a glowing smile), blankets, soap, candy, chocolate bars, earplugs, hearing aids, laxatives, contraceptives, and countless other products that were credited with curing everything from pimples to high blood pressure to arthritis, gout, constipation, and chronic diarrhea.

In addition to Radithor radium water, William Bailey also sold radioactive flue and cough medicines, and an athletic supporter called a “radioendocrinator” that he claimed would cure impotence. Wearers were instructed to position the radium “under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed…” Eben Byers took his doctor’s advice and began drinking Radithor. A lot of it. He found the water so “invigorating” that he continued drinking it long after his arm stopped hurting. Byer’s cure was more likely due simple passage of time than to any purported healing effects and radium, but he didn’t know that. In addition to downing as many as three bottles of Radithor a day for nearly three years, he sent cases of the stuff to associates and lady friends and urged them to drink it. He even instructed his stable boys to feed Radithor to his racehorses.

Too much of a “good” thing

Byers kept right on drinking Radithor into the early 1930s, when he began losing weight and suffering aches and pains all over his body. These symptoms were soon followed by blinding headaches and terrible pain in his jaw, but it wasn’t until his bones began breaking and his teeth started falling out that he realized he was suffering from something much more serious than “inflamed sinuses,” as his doctors had diagnosed.

Precisely what was wrong with him didn’t become clear until X-rays of his deteriorating jaw were sent to a radiologist in New York. The radiologist was familiar with the case of the “Radium Girls” – factory workers who had died after ingesting the radium in glow-in-the-dark paint while painting watch dials during World War I. The lesions on Byer’s jawbone were similar to the ones the Radium Girls had suffered. When the radiologist learned that Byers had consumed as many as 1,500 of Radithor since 1927, his diagnosis, like Byers’s fate, was sealed.

Radioactive Man

Had Radithor been made with radon gas dissolved in water, like the waters in natural hot springs, Byers probably would have escaped serious injury. But Radithor wasn’t made with radon, it was made with radium, a different radioactive element altogether. Radium’s half-life isn’t 3.8 days like radon’s – it’s 1,600 years. Even worse, because radium is chemically similar to calcium, instead of passing through the body in a day of two, which would have limited the amount of harm it caused, it accumulates in the bones, where the radiation if gives off destroys the surrounding bone marrow, blood cells, and other tissue. This was why Byer’s bone s were breaking and his teeth were falling out – they’d been destroyed by radiation and were no disintegrating. By the time he began to experience the first signs of radium poisoning, he had already consumed more than three times the lethal dose. He was doomed.

A Government Investigation

Even if the Food and Drug Administration had understood just how deadly radium was, in those days its powers to act were very limited. Radium was neither a food nor a drug, after all – it was a naturally occurring element, placing it outside the agency’s jurisdiction. The only government agency capable of acting was the Federal Trade Commission, which was empowered to protect consumers against misleading trade practices, including false advertising claims. Ironically, the FTC had used this power to take action against companies selling products that claimed to contain radioactive materials but didn’t.

By the time Byers fell ill, evidence of the dangers of radioactive products had begun to mount. The FTC opened an investigation into Radithor, which had been advertised as being “harmless in every respect.” Clearly it wasn’t and in 1931 a legal team was dispatched to Byer’s estate to record his testimony. By then he was too sick to appear in court. “A more gruesome experience in a more gorgeous setting would be hard to imaging,” attorney Robert H. Winn remembered:

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.

The Fallout

Thanks in large part to Byer’s testimony, Radithor was pulled from the market in December 1931. Byers died three months later, at age 51. Any doubts that the radium killed him were resolved at the autopsy, when some of his teeth and a portion of his jawbone were set on a plate of unexposed photographic film: The radiation in the bone expose the file just as if it had been used in an X-ray machine. To prevent the radiation in Byer’s body from leaking out, he was buried in a coffin lined with lead.

No one knows how many people died from drinking Radithor. At least one female friend of Byers died from radium poisoning after he introduced her to the product. In all, dozens or possibly even hundreds of people may have been killed. Considering that William Bailey is estimated to have sold more than 400,000 bottles of Radithor over the years, it’s a wonder that more didn’t die. Many were probably saved by the price: Even when it was sold by the case, Radithor cost $1.25 a bottle (around $15 in today’s money). Few people would have been able to afford to consume as much as Byers had.

Lights Out

Byer’s death received a lot more press than those of the Radium Girls. (“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” read a Wall Street Journal headline.) Reason: Byers was a millionaire socialite; the Radium Girls were working-class nobodies employed by a paint factory. Very few people worked in such a place, so their story wasn’t as scary to readers as Byers’s, who’d died because he drank a health tonic sold to the public.

The scandal surrounding Byers’s death prompted the government to grant FDA much broader powers to regulate patent medicines and protect the public from other dangerous products. Another result: Today the sale of “radiopharmaceuticals” – radioactive materials used in medicine – is restricted to authorized members of the medical profession.

Caveat Emptor

If you collect antiques, you may know that some shops and dealers specialize in medical objects. From time to time an empty bottle of Radithor pops up, but think twice before you buy one – even though the bottles have likely been empty since their original purchasers consumed the product more than 70 years ago, the bottles themselves remain dangerously radioactive. Just like Eben Byers, still at rest in his lead-lined coffin in a cemetery in Pennsylvania, they will be radioactive for thousands of years to come.


SOURCE: Uncle John’s fully loaded 25th anniversary bathroom reader. (2012). Ashland, Or.: Bathroom Readers’ Press. p. 407 – 411

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