The Man Who Drank Radioactive Water Until His Jaw Fell Off

Andrei Tapalaga

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Eben Byers’ death announced in the New Jersey News Paper (Source: WowScience)

The early part of the 20th century was still quite an experimental phase for the pre-modern medicine era. Medics would prescribe very strong drugs such as cocaine and heroin for various illnesses. Some people would medicate themselves with potions that we categorize today as poisonous to the human body.

History of Radithor

However, the substance that stands out the most for actually being prescribed by medics was Radithor or in other words radium (highly radioactive) combined with water. Ironically enough, when the product was released it was advertised as “a cure for the living dead."

The potion was manufactured by the Bailey Radium Laboratories in New Jersey. This company was founded by William J. A. Bailey who was not a certified doctor as he dropped out of the Harvard Medical School, however, he kept telling people that he graduated so everyone sort of believed him.

Bailey and his team of chemists had done a bit of research on radium and found some “hypothetical” benefits for the human organism. This was at a time when radioactivity wasn’t a very well-researched subject and especially what it can do to the human body. They knew that in high doses it could kill a person, but a very small dose, well distilled with water could be beneficial.

The product was launched in 1918 to the whole of the United States. The benefits from Radithor were very vague as the description only mentioned that “it will enhance the vital processes of the body.” This did not stop people from buying it and medics from prescribing it and as per usual the placebo effect took place as everyone was feeling much better only after a few doses.

The tragic death of Eben Byers

Eben Byers was born in 12 April 1880. His wealthy background permitted him a good education, even going as far as graduating from Yale University. He was an athletic young man who won many gold championships in the early 1900s. Once his father deemed him old enough, he made him the president of Girard Iron Company.

In 1927, during one of his matches, he tripped and injured his arm. The wound wasn’t very bad, but it provoked a lot of pain, something Byers was not used to. Therefore his medic prescribed Radithor for faster healing besides all its other hypothetical benefits.

Byers followed his medic’s prescription to only take a small spoon a day. Over a short period of time, Byers was also hit by the placebo effect as he was feeling great, so great that he started taking a whole bottle a day, then weeks later two, and after a year even three bottles of a day.

In 1931 he got a surprise as his jaw literally fell down. The high consumption of radioactive water made his tissue and bones disintegrate from the inside. He didn’t feel much pain as all of his nerves were also melted by the substance in time.

The medics tried to remove all the putrifying tissue from his face and surgically build him a new jaw that would make him not look so disfigured. From 1927 when he first started taking Radithor until 1931 when he stopped, Byers consumed over 1,400 bottles. With this much, his vital tissue and organs were also disintegrating inside his body which led to his death in 1932, when he was only 51 years of age.

Bailey’s company was shut down by the authorities, however, he tried to sell the same item under a different name.

In 1965, Byers’ body was exhumed to be studied and his remains after 30 years we're still extremely radioactive.

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