Eben Byers was an amateur golfer, an alumnus of Yale, and a notorious ladies man, but he is most famous for literally rotting from the inside out after spending three years drinking radium-infused water.
When Byers fell and hurt his arm in 1927, he was prescribed Radithor, a radium-infused elixir sold by a quack doctor named William Bailey. Radithor was supposed to alleviate aches, pains, and even invigorate one sexually. Yet what happened to Byers fell far afield of the positive effects Radithor was supposed to have. Instead, after three years of incessant use, Byers began rotting from the inside. His teeth fell out; his jaw had to be removed; holes formed in his brain and skull; and he eventually perished in 1932 from radium poisoning. Like the ill-fated Radium Girls before him, Byers demonstrated the clear and unequivocal bodily evidence that exposure to radium was lethal.
Byers's tragic death is a story of medical deception and overdose, and it serves as a cautionary tale that there is, in fact, too much of a good thing - especially if that good thing is actually completely lethal.
Byers's Story Probably Got So Much Attention Because He Was A Handsome, Upper-Class ManPhoto: flickr / CC0
Eben Byers was the son of a well-known entrepreneur, and he was the chairman of his father's steel company. He attended Yale, golfed, raced horses, and was popular with women. He was the perfect candidate for a tragic, newsworthy story - made even more fascinating and terrifying because he perished after drinking what was touted as a health tonic, completely available to the public. Everything about Byers's story differs from the devastating story of the Radium Girls.
The tragedy of the Radium Girls - female factory employees who became painfully sick and perished of radium poisoning - was well covered by the media, but was less compelling to the government than the story of Byers, a socialite in the public eye. It wasn't until Byers told the Federal Trade Commission about Radithor, while on his deathbed, that radium was removed from the federally approved list of medicines.
The Idea To Drink Radioactive Water As An Elixir Came From The Restorative Powers Of Hot Springs
In the 1920s, people knew about - and believed in - the healing powers of hot springs. When it was discovered that the water in hot springs was mildly radioactive, due to the radon gas dissolved in the water, it was concluded that it was the radioactivity that was so curative. In The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Dr. C.G. Davis claimed, "Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life." It was no wonder products infused with radium, such as candy, hair tonics, and even blankets, were so popular.
However, radon gas is entirely different from radium, the element found in Radithor. Radon gas has a half-life of about three days - radium has one of 1,600 years. Seeing as Byers took three times the already toxic dose of Radithor, he was irrevocably doomed.
Byers Deteriorated Rapidly and Painfully, But He Kept Drinking RadithorPhoto: Metaweb / GNU Free Documentation License
For the first two years Byers took Radithor, he was so pleased with the supposed results that he took three times the suggested daily dose. But, after a while, he began feeling sick. He lost weight, had headaches, and had a blinding pain in his jaw. He had been diagnosed with inflamed sinuses, but once his teeth began to fall out and his jaw began to crumble, Byers knew something was terribly wrong. Byers's X-ray was sent to a radiologist, who confirmed that Byers's fate was inevitable - he had the same lesions on his jaw as the Radium Girls. Sadly, Byers was so indoctrinated to rely on Radithor that he kept drinking it, hoping it would help him feel better when he began feeling sick.
An attorney dispatched to Byers's house shortly before his passing remembered the state Byers was in due to his radiation poisoning:
We went to Southampton where Byers had a magnificent home. There we discovered him in a condition which beggars description. Young in years and mentally alert, he could hardly speak. His head was swathed in bandages. He had undergone two successful jaw operations and 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 Had Enough Radium In His Body To "Kill Three Men"
After Byers's death, Popular Science Monthly wrote that Byers had the "largest amount of radium ever found in a human being - more than thirty micrograms, enough to kill three men."
With symptoms such as blinding headaches, breaking bones, and a disintegrating jaw, Byers must have suffered immensely before he succumbed to radiation poisoning in 1932, five years after his first dose of Radithor.