William J.A. Bailey grew rich from his radium-laced patent medicine Radithor, until it killed leading businessman, sportsman and socialite Eben M. Byers in March 1932. The scandal helped usher in the modern regulation of radioactive materials.

When Byers, a one-time U.S. national amateur golf champion, injured his arm in 1928, his doctor recommended he begin drinking Radithor, a half-ounce concoction of distilled water, radium and mesothorium. An advertisement for Radithor made the astounding claim: “In this bottle reposes the greatest therapeutic force known to mankind— radioactivity.”

Byers consumed three bottles a day for two years and was so impressed with the effects of Radithor that he enthusiastically sent cases of it to his friends.

Then, in 1930, Byers’ teeth started falling out and his general health rapidly declined. His bones were deteriorating. Byers was eventually diagnosed with radium poisoning by Frederick Flinn, who had examined Grace Fryer for U.S. Radium in 1925.

A Federal Trade Commission lawyer who was pursuing fraud claims against Bailey said of Byers in 1931: “We discovered him in a condition which beggars description….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.” Byers’ death at age 51 alerted the public to the harmful effects of “radium therapy.” His doctor denied all responsibility.

Radithor was not the only radioactive product on the market. There were radium healing pads to relieve pain and bath salts to ease stress and insomnia. Some products claimed to have an invigorating effect, such as the suppositories that promised to restore “joyous vitality” to “discouraged” men. More recent examples of radioactive products include a Japanese-made “Endless Refrigerator/ Freezer Deodorizer” that was sold or given away to some 20,000 unsuspecting consumers in Kansas in the early 1980s before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission stopped them. The radiation emitted by the plastic device contained high levels of thorium, whose 10 billion year half-life makes it truly an “endless” deodorizer.

The fascinating story of quack cures, as well as a history of radiation technology, is told at the Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum Collection in Oak Ridge, Tenn. (www.orau.org/ ptp/collection/quack cures/quackcures.htm).


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.