I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
By the middle of the 19th century America was awash with what were known as proprietary medicines, often referred to as snake oil. Many contained harmless ingredients laced with alcohol or opium. In the 1920s, Radithor went for a bigger kick than psychoactive drugs by introducing radioactive material to its contents.
The Invention of Radithor
William J. A. Bailey dropped out of Harvard University but clearly thought his time at the hallowed seat of learning was sufficient to award himself a medical degree. After a spell in prison for mail fraud, and armed with his fake qualifications Bailey set out to conquer the world of patent medicines.
One of his early elixirs was Las-I-Go for Superb Manhood. Its basic ingredient was strychnine. In 1918, he moved on to a concoction that was water infused with radium. He called it “Pure Sunshine in a Bottle” and it was claimed to be “A Cure for the Living Dead.”
Asthma, constipation, flagging libidos, diabetes, mental illness, and 145 other ailments were said to succumb to it curative powers. Called Radithor, the potion was supposed to excite the endocrine system into battling the nasty afflictions the body is heir to.
The assertion that Radithor dealt a might blow to impotence was unproven, although a 1913 article in The Lancet medical journal noted that radium water did cause newts to get frisky in the procreative sense.
Thirty dollars secured the purchaser a case of 24 two-ounce bottles of the miraculously therapeutic brew.
Radithor’s Famous Victim
Eben Byers was a Pittsburgh industrialist (iron and steel, of course) and a golfer of considerable promise; he won the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship in 1906.
In 1927, he was coming home on a chartered train after the Harvard-Yale football game. Dozing in an upper berth, he rolled over and fell out. The resulting arm injury resisted the ministrations of physicians and spoiled his golf game.
Finally, a doctor said “Why not try Radithor?”
Timothy J. Jorgensen is an expert on radiation at Georgetown University. In an article for The Conversation he wrote that “Although the product contained no narcotics at all, Byers became at least psychologically, if not physiologically, addicted to it. He continued to consume large amounts of Radithor even after his arm had healed.”
He was so enthused by the product that he sent cases of the wonder sauce to friends and he told his stable hands to give it to his racehorses.
All went well for a few years, then, as a Wall Street Journal headline put it “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off.” All the radium he had consumed accumulated in his bones, causing his death in March 1932 at the age of 51.
Chemically, radium is similar to calcium, so, rather than passing through the body it bonds with bones and accumulates. It sits there destroying blood cells, bone marrow, and other tissue.
Investigation of Radithor
The fame of Byers meant that his death caused quite a stir, and an inquiry was called for. Suspicions about the dangers of Radithor had been raised before the death of Byers and Federal Trade Commission lawyer Robert Hiner Winn had been sent to interview him.
Winn told an inquiry of the parlous condition of the man who only had a few months left to live: “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.”
An autopsy found that Byers had an abscess on his brain, all but six of his teeth had fallen out, and his body contained more than three-and-a-half times the fatal amount of radium. The cadaver was so radioactive it was buried in a lead-lined coffin; it will be 1,600 years before what’s left of Eben Byers will be safe to handle.
William Bailey, the creator of the fatal hooch, absolved himself by saying he only supplied it on a doctor’s prescription. One such practitioner, Dr. C.G. Davis had written in The American Journal of Clinical Medicine that “radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”
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Dr. Davis’s glowing advocacy notwithstanding, radium infused drinks were removed from the market in December 1931, three months before Byers died, but not soon enough to save him.
Aftermath of the Radithor Affair
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the time of the Radithor issue was quite weak, which is why the investigation was handed to the Federal Trade Commission, a group that had more teeth.
One result was to beef up the FDA to give it the power to take dangerous products off the market.
William Bailey suffered no consequences for peddling his lethal tonic, and died a wealthy man. He continued his quackery with Arium, which promised to restore “happiness and youthful thrill into the lives of married peoples whose attractions to each other had weakened.” Then, there were the pelletized seaweed tablets that were supposed to treat 32 diseases.
Of his Radithor he said “I have drunk more radium water than any man alive, and I have never suffered any ill effects.” Well, not quite.
He was taken out in May 1949 by bladder cancer. Twenty years later, he was dug up, Geiger counters started crackling, and his body was found to be “ravaged by radiation.”
- When Radithor came on the market, it was already known that radium was dangerous. In 1913, a British scientist named Walter Lazarus-Barlow published a study noting that radium accumulates in bones. Also, a 1914 report from Professor Ernst Zueblin warned of the dangers of radium.
- In the 1920s, women who painted luminous dials on watches and clocks started to fall sick and some die. They were using a radium/paint mixture and were ingesting some of the radioactive material. There’s more on this story here.
- “When ‘Energy’ Drinks Actually Contained Radioactive Energy.” Timothy J. Jorgensen, The Conversation, November 2, 2016.
- “The Radioactive Energy Drink that Kills.” Kaushik Patowary,” Amusing Planet, August 16, 2019.
- “Medicine: Radium Drinks.” Time Magazine, April 11, 1932.
- “Radiation Therapy Pursuit Leads to Unearthing of ‘Hot Bones’.” Cory Vanchieri, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, November 7, 1990.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Gina Welds Hulse from Rockledge, Florida on February 24, 2021:
I watched a movie, The Radium Girls, recently....about so many of the girls who would paint the watch hands, and then went on to develop all forms of illness. So sad.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 23, 2021:
Yes Rupert, that is so true. I just have to look at the spam emails I receive.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 23, 2021:
I wish I could agree with your use of the past tense John, but these scoundrels are among us still; perhaps even more so. The internet makes the peddling of quack remedies a no-cost venture that targets the most vulnerable. You don't even need a horse and wagon to travel from town to town to sell your snake oil.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 23, 2021:
How such quackery was allowed to be pedalled for so long is the question. Too many of these “snake oil” salesmen with no medical qualifications were able to get rich quick in those days at the expense of the health of others.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 23, 2021:
Rupert, it's a basic fact that radium is not a healthy element. It cause a dangerour radiation. The question is:why did the medical world specific, chemists, physicists, and human biologists allow such a dangerous drug as the radiation water into the market? That's too absurd! Thanks for sharing.