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The Radioactive Energy Drink That Kills

Ebenezer Byers was a well known American socialite, son of industrialist Alexander Byers. In his youth Eben showed promising talent at sports, finishing runner-up at the US Amateur Golf Tournament in 1902 and 1903, before becoming champion in 1906. Eben eventually became the chairman at his father’s steel and wrought iron company, while continuing to pursue sports into his late forties.

Eben travelled frequently around the US to watch teams play. In 1927, while returning on a chartered train from a Yale-Harvard football game, Eben fell out of an upper berth and hurt his arm. Despite the best ministration of his personal physicians and trainers, Eben complained of persistent pain that was now beginning to affect his golf games. On the recommendation of a Pittsburgh physician, Eben started drinking Radithor, a patented medicine containing traces of radium—a radioactive element.

Radithor

A bottle of Radithor at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in New Mexico. Photo credit: Sam LaRussa/Wikimedia

Radithor was invented by William J. A. Bailey, a Harvard University dropout who falsely claimed to be a doctor of medicine. Bailey promoted Radithor as a metabolic stimulant and aphrodisiac. He claimed that the radioactive bursts of energy released by the radium atoms stimulated the organs inside the body, such as the adrenals and thyroid, speeding up recovery from various ailments such as headaches, diabetes, anemia, constipation, asthma and so on. Radithor sold in half-ounce bottles containing 1 microcurie each of radium 228 and radium 226 as radium salts dissolved in distilled water. A box of 24 such bottles cost $30.

For the next three years, Eben took copious amount of Radithor believing it would help him in is game. Eben was approaching fifty, and it is reasonable to believe that he had lost his touch, as much as with golf as with women.

Byers averaged three bottles a day. In the beginning, he felt invigorated and full of energy. He recommended the drink to his friends, sent them cases of it, and even fed it to his racehorses. But slowly, the drink began to lose its magic. He started losing weight, had severe headaches, and his teeth began falling out.

Ebenezer Byers

Eben Byers in 1903.

Dr. Joseph Manning Steiner, a Manhattan-based x-ray specialist who had seen several young women working with radium get poisoned in U.S. Radium Corp.'s factory, recognized in Byers' condition symptoms of radium poisoning. Immediately, a cry went out to investigate Radithor. In 1931 the Federal Trade Commission asked Byers to testify about his experience, but he was too sick to travel, so the commission sent a lawyer to interview him at his Southampton home.

Attorney Winn found Byers in a pitiable condition. “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,” the lawyer wrote.

Byers died a gruesome death six months later. Autopsy revealed that he had only six teeth left. Both jaws were rotted. His brain was abscessed. His kidneys had failed. Distributed through his bones were 36 micrograms of radium. Ten micrograms is a fatal dose.

Ebenezer Byers

Ebenezer Byers

Byers's death received widespread publicity generating much awareness among the public of the dangers of radium poisoning. But there were still many who kept their faith in the healing power of radium. Byers’s own physician, Dr. Moyar, the one who prescribed him Radithor, vehemently denied radium had anything to do with his demise.

“I never had a death among my patients for radium treatment,” Dr. Moyar announced. “I have taken as much or more radium water of the same kind Mr. Byers took and I am 51 years old, active and healthy. ... I believe that radium water has a definite place in the treatment of certain diseases and I prescribe when I deem it necessary.”

Byers, he declared, died “from a combination of blood diseases which had induced gout.”

Byers's death might have failed to convince some, but it did rouse the Federal Trade Commission into action. In December the same year, the FTC issued a cease-and-desist order against William Bailey’s company stopping it from producing more Radithor.

Bailey was never tried for the death of Byers, allowing him to continue promoting his quack treatments. In 1937, in partnership with a New York-based company, Bailey sold tablets containing seaweed in compressed pelletized form, that he claimed could treat 32 specific diseases and other conditions. Another of his cures involved wearing a piece of a radioactive radium next to the skin with the help of a strap. Bailey made a fortune selling his many devices and products, and died a wealthy man.

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