The Radioactive Death of Eben Byers

Radium-based radioactive cure-all Radithor c.1928

Radioactive cure-all Radithor c.1928

In 1903 J.J. Thompson, the discoverer of the electron, wrote a letter to the journal Nature describing his remarkable discovery of the presence of radioactivity in well water. This led to the discovery by others that the waters in many of the world’s most famous health springs were also radioactive, due to the presence of radium emanation – what we now call radon gas – produced by the radium that is present in the ground through which the waters flow.

It became quickly accepted that the radioactivity must be the reason for the curative properties of the springs.

Besides being touted as a cure-all for everything from chronic diarrhea to insanity, it was also believed that radioactivity “rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”

Professor Bertram Boltwood of Yale explained the scientific basis for the cures in the following way: The radioactivity was “carrying electrical energy into the depths of the body and there subjecting the juices, protoplasm, and nuclei of the cells to an immediate bombardment by explosions of electrical atoms,” and that it stimulated “cell activity, arousing all secretory and excretory organs . . . causing the system to throw off waste products,” and that it was “an agent for the destruction of bacteria.”

Radon was believed to be so important to water that it was considered its life element. Without it, water was dead. Radon was to water what oxygen was to air.

Unfortunately, Radium decayed very quickly from the spring water. The water had to be consumed at the spring to receive the healing properties. This lead to the creation of devices for use in the home to add radioactivity to tap water, such as the first and most popular Revigator in 1912.

The Revigator was a jar made of radium-containing ore which held several gallons of water and came with these instructions: “Fill jar every night. Drink freely . . . when thirsty and upon arising and retiring, average six or more glasses daily.”

Many more radium-emanating products hit the market, many of which were cheaper, smaller and mobile so you could take your personal, perpetual health spring with you on the road or at home.

To prevent scams, the American Medical Association established guidelines (in effect from 1916 to 1929) that emanators seeking AMA approval had to generate more than 2 µCi of radon per liter of water in a 24-hour period.

In the 1920s and early 1930s it was possible to purchase radium-containing salves, beauty creams, toothpaste (radon was thought to fight dental decay and improve digestion), ear plugs, chocolate bars, butter, soap, suppositories, and even contraceptives.

Eben Byers

Eben Byers

Born April 12, 1880, Eben Byers was educated at St. Paul’s School and Yale College, where he earned a reputation as an athlete and ladies’ man. He was the U.S. Amateur Golf Champion of 1906, after finishing runner-up in 1902 and 1903. Byers eventually became the chairman of the Girard Iron Company, which had been created by his father, Alexander Byers.

In 1927, while returning via chartered train from the annual Harvard-Yale football game, Byers fell from his berth and injured his arm. He complained of persistent pain and a doctor suggested that he take Radithor, a patent medicine manufactured by William J. A. Bailey. Bailey was a Harvard University dropout who falsely claimed to be a doctor of medicine and became rich from the sale of Radithor. Bailey created Radithor by dissolving radium in water to high concentrations, claiming it could cure many ailments by stimulating the endocrine system. He offered physicians a 17% rebate on the prescription of each dose of Radithor.

Byers began taking enormous doses of Radithor, which he believed had greatly improved his health, drinking 3 bottles a day – nearly 1400 bottles total. In the process, he subjected himself to more than three times the acute lethal radiation dose. By 1930, when Byers stopped taking the remedy, he had accumulated significant amounts of radium in his bones resulting in the loss of most of his jaw. Byers’ brain was also abscessed and holes were forming in his skull. He died from radium poisoning on March 31, 1932. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a lead-lined coffin.

Due to Byers’ prominence, his death received much publicity. The Wall Street Journal ran a headline reading “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off” after his death. His illness and eventual death also led to a heightened awareness of the dangers of radiation poisoning, and to the adoption of laws that increased the powers of the FDA.

William Bailey was never tried for Byers’ death, although the Federal Trade Commission issued an order against his business. However this did not stop Bailey from trading in radioactive products. He later founded a new company – “Radium Institute”, in New York – and marketed a radioactive belt-clip, a radioactive paperweight, and a mechanism which made water radioactive.

The death of Eben Byers, along with the plight of the Radium Girls getting sick from the radium-based glow-in-the-dark paint they applied to watch dials at the United States Radium factory, enlightened the public to the dangers of radium.

Radium-based products were still sold into the 1980s, including the Lifestone Cigarette Holder in the 1960s which was said to “protect users from lung cancer, promise them beautiful faces, and excellent health.”

Radioactive health springs are still in operation today.

10 replies
  1. Avatar
    Catherine Stabert Procko says:

    My mother died from radium poisoning from working in the Waterbury CT. Clock factory. She was 36 years old. I was 7 and my brother was 9. She suffered immensely.

      • Avatar
        Brainjuice says:

        Back to school. What is radon and what is radium. Radioactive decay series? Daughter and mother nuclides? Radioactive disintegration? Gas? Element?

      • Avatar
        robert lawton says:

        Just like in a home fish aquarium, there is an external pump that takes oxygen from room air and bubbles it in the aquarium water. Same as those health spa springs, water flowing up out of the ground where radium exists and that radium decaying in to radon gas that infused in to the water. people took a bath in those health spa springs, drank the radon infused water. ” Radon gas dissolved in to the spring water ” in modern times everyone knows more about radiation : causing all sort of health problems, cancers, death

  2. Avatar
    KS says:

    By 1927, the effects of radium poisoning were well-understood through doctor reports and the ensuing class-action lawsuit by the “Radium Girls”, radium dial painters. Those cases should have been enough publicity, but I guess it took the death of a wealthy man to get in the WSJ and into the public eye.


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