I have spent half a century writing for radio and print media, mostly print. I hope to keep typing the keys as I take my last breath.
By the mid-19th century, America was inundated with what were called proprietary medicines, often referred to as snake oil. Many contained harmless ingredients mixed with alcohol or opium. In the 1920s, Radithor went beyond psychoactive drugs by introducing radioactive material into its contents.
William JA Bailey dropped out of Harvard University, but clearly believed his stint in the sacred seat of learning was enough to earn a medical degree. After going to jail for mail fraud, and armed with his false credentials, Bailey set out to conquer the world of patented drugs.
One of his first essences was Las-I-Go for Superb Manhood. Its basic ingredient was strychnine. In 1918, he switched to a radium-infused water concoction. He called it “Pure Sunshine in a Bottle” and it was claimed to be “A Cure for the Living Dead”.
Asthma, constipation, low libidos, diabetes, mental illness and 145 other ailments would succumb to the curative powers. Called Radithor, the potion was believed to excite the endocrine system in combating the unpleasant afflictions to which the body is heir.
The claim that Radithor had dealt a blow to impotence was not proven, although a 1913 article in The Lancet The medical journal noted that radium water caused newts to get frisky in the sense of procreation.
Thirty dollars guaranteed the buyer a case of 24 two-ounce bottles of miraculously therapeutic beer.
Famous Radithor Victim
Eben Byers was a Pittsburgh industrialist (iron and steel, of course) and a very promising golfer; he won the American Amateur Golf Championship in 1906.
In 1927, he was returning home on a chartered train after the Harvard-Yale football game. Dozing off in an upper bunk, he rolled over and fell. The resulting arm injury withstood medical attention and ruined his round of golf.
Finally, a doctor said, “Why not try Radithor?”
Timothy J. Jorgensen is a radiation expert at Georgetown University. In an article for The conversation he wrote that “Although the product did not contain any narcotics, 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 excited about the product that he sent cases of miracle sauce to friends and told his steady hands to give it to his racehorses.
Everything went well for a few years, then the Wall Street newspaper the headline says, “Radium water worked fine until her jaw dropped 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 binds to bones and accumulates. It sits there, destroying blood cells, bone marrow, and other tissues.
Byers’ fame meant that his death had caused a stir and an investigation was needed. Suspicions about Radithor’s dangers had been raised before Byers’ death and Federal Trade Commission attorney Robert Hiner Winn had been dispatched to question him.
Winn recounted an investigation into the alarming condition of the man who had only a few months to live: “Young for years and mentally alert, he could barely speak. His head was wrapped in bandages. He had undergone two successive operations in which his entire upper jaw, except for two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue in his body was slowly disintegrating and holes were actually forming in his skull.
An autopsy revealed that Byers had a brain abscess, all but six of his teeth had fallen out, and his body contained more than three and a half times the lethal amount of radium. The corpse was so radioactive that it was buried in a coffin covered with lead; it will be 1,600 years before what remains of Eben Byers can be safely handled.
William Bailey, the creator of the fatal hooch, absolved himself by saying that he only provided it on a doctor’s prescription. One of these practitioners, Dr CG Davis wrote in The American Journal of Clinical Medicine that “radioactivity prevents madness, arouses noble emotions, delays old age and creates a splendid juvenile and joyful life.”
Despite Dr. Davis ‘glowing plea, the radium-infused drinks were taken off the market in December 1931, three months before Byers’ death, but not soon enough to save him.
Continuation of the Radithor case
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the time of Radithor’s question was quite weak, which is why the investigation was turned over to the Federal Trade Commission, a group that had more teeth.
One of the results has been to strengthen the FDA to give it the power to take dangerous products off the market.
William Bailey suffered no consequences for selling his deadly tonic and died a rich man. He continued his quackery with Arium, who promised to restore “happiness and youthful emotion in the lives of married people whose attraction to others had weakened.” Then there were the granulated seaweed tablets which were supposed to treat 32 diseases.
Of his Radithor, he said: “I have drunk more radium water than any living man, and I have never suffered any ill effects.” Well, not exactly.
He was released in May 1949 from bladder cancer. Twenty years later he was dug up, Geiger counters began to crackle and his body was found to be “ravaged by radiation.”
- When Radithor first hit 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. In addition, a 1914 report by Professor Ernst Zueblin warned of the dangers of radium.
- In the 1920s, women who painted luminous dials on watches and clocks began to get sick and some died from it. They used a radium / paint mixture and ingested some of the radioactive material. There is more on this story here.
- “When ‘energy’ drinks actually contains radioactive energy.” Timothy J. Jorgensen, The conversation, November 2, 2016.
- “The radioactive energy drink that kills.” Kaushik Patowary, ” Fun planet, August 16, 2019.
- “Medicine: Radium drinks.” Time magazine, April 11, 1932.
- “The pursuit of radiation therapy leads to the discovery of ‘hot bones’.” Cory Vanchieri, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, November 7, 1990.
This content is accurate and faithful to the author’s knowledge and is not intended to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
John hansen from Queensland Australia on February 23, 2021:
Yes Rupert, that’s so true. I only have to look at the spam I receive.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 23, 2021:
I wish I could agree with your use of the past John, but these scoundrels are among us still; maybe even more. The Internet is making quack medicine trafficking a free business that targets the most vulnerable. You don’t even need a horse and cart to travel from city to city to sell your snake oil.
John hansen from Queensland Australia on February 23, 2021:
The question is how such quackery could have been cycled for so long. Too many of these unskilled “snake oil” sellers could get rich quickly at this time at the expense of the health of others.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. February 23, 2021:
Rupert, it’s a basic fact that radium is not a healthy element. This causes danger to radiation. The question is, why have the specific medical world, chemists, physicists, and human biologists allowed such a dangerous drug as radiation water to come onto the market? This is too absurd! Thanks for sharing.
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