The Man Who Drank Radium
This Article was written by Kate Lesperance, Year 10
Would you ever drink water if you knew it was radioactive? The truth is very tiny amounts of radioactivity is usually found in all drinking water. The substances causing this are called radionuclides. These radionuclides can be found everywhere and are a natural part of the environment, including air and soil and generally do not cause harm unless you have extremely high exposure to them. But would you ever drink water if you knew it contained radium, the most radioactive element ever discovered? Hopefully your answer was no, but some in the 1920s to 1930s had a very different approach to this. Radithor, water with radium, was a medicine to “cure” diseases. People really believed this could heal them, until the truth was revealed when Ebenezer Byers succumbed to the annihilation of his body as a side effect of Radithor.
Radithor was a medical tonic manufactured from 1918-1928 until its production ended in 1932. It was a half-ounce bottle of radium with triple distilled water. To be more specific, it contained the radium isotopes radium-226 and radium-228, meaning that if you drank quite a bit of it you would be radioactive for a very long time.
It was $1 for a bottle and was advertised as “a cure for the living dead” and its description stated that it would “enhance the vital processes of the body.” The man who developed this “cure,” William Bailey, said that “radithor is harmless in every respect.” 400,000 bottles of this “medicine” were sold.
Radium is the most radioactive of all discovered elements. The common isotopes of radium include radium-224, radium-226, and radium-228. Radium-224 has a half life of 3.5 days, radium-226 has a half life of 1,600 years, while radium-228 has a half life of 6.7 years. When consumed, only a small amount is absorbed by the digestive tract and the rest is spread across the body. It gathers in the bones and damages the blood cells, bone marrow, and tissues. High amounts of ingested radium seem to have effects such as anaemia, cataracts, reduced bone growth, broken teeth, and a depressed immune system.
Why people may have thought radioactive water would have benefits
Hot springs have many healing properties and people knew about this at the time. The hot springs were found to be slightly radioactive because of dissolved radon gas. The mistake made during the production of Radithor was that radium is much more radioactive than radon gas, especially when ingested. It was also known that high amounts of radium is deadly but could potentially be beneficial in distilled water.
William Bailey, the man who owned Bailey Radium Laboratories who was responsible for producing and selling Radithor, claimed he was a doctor who graduated at Harvard University when he had actually dropped out and had no qualifications as a doctor at all. He and his team said they had researched radium and found hypothetical benefits of it on the human body.
Due to the misadvertisement of this radioactive drink, Ebenezer Byers, an American sportsman, socialist, and industrialist, had to suffer the consequences of consuming over 1,400 bottles of Radithor.
Eben Byers, born 12 April 1880, was a champion in golf. In 1927, he tripped and hurt his arm whilst playing a match. Although his arm wasn’t badly wounded, it still caused a sufficient amount of pain, enough for him to turn to his physiotherapist for a solution. His physiotherapist suggested that Byers should try Radithor because it could heal his injury faster, while also providing an energy boost. He was prescribed only one spoon per day and not long after that, the athlete felt energetic and healthy, as he expected. Because he felt so great, he increased his dose to one bottle per day. Then two after a few weeks. Then three after around a year. Many bottles later, Byers experienced severe headaches, body aches, weight loss, and bone necrosis in his jaw. Concerned by this, he got it checked by doctors, to which they said it was just inflamed sinuses. That was until his bones began breaking and his teeth started falling out.
He found his way to a radiologist who happened to notice similarities between Byers’ issues and the Radium Girls. However, he had already taken lethal amounts before he realised what was happening. His skull and jaw were already nearly destroyed. The tonic had also melted his nerves so he didn’t feel much pain when his jaw completely detached and fell off in 1931. His jaw was surgically rebuilt, but after three years of Radithor, he died shortly after, at the age of 51 on 31 March 1932. His body was exhumed to study in 1965 and his radiation level was measured to be around 225,000 becquerels. Due to his high radioactivity, he was reburied in a lead coffin.
The End of Radithor
The authorities shut down Bailey Radium Companies. William Bailey even tried to resell Radithor under a different name but was unsuccessful. Since then, the production of Radithor has ceased and is no longer sold. The number of deaths caused by Radithor is unknown. Luckily, we know more about radioactivity now than we did back then and we’re not as likely to make the same mistake.
That concludes the story of Radithor and why it’s not a good idea to drink things containing harmful amounts of radioactive substances, even when a large number of people tell you it’s actually great, unless you want to watch your body necrose to death. That is, if your eyes haven’t already melted…