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The Horrifying Story Of The Man Who Rotted Internally From Radiation Poisoning  

Cleo Egnal
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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 you 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 died 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.   

"The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off"
"The Radium Water W... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Horrifying Story Of The Man Who Rotted Internally From Radiation Poisoning
Photo: BlueShift 12/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

This was the title of a Wall Street Journal article that came out some time after Byers's death, and it succinctly sums up what happened to him. In 1927, Byers was on a train returning from a Harvard-Yale football game, when he fell from his bunk and hurt his arm. The pain didn't go away, so Byers's doctor prescribed him Radithor.  

Radithor was simply radium dissolved in water, and it was marketed as a healing tonic. At a time when radium-infused products were very popular, it was unsurprising that Byers was more than happy to take Radithor. In fact, Byers was so keen on the product and its supposed benefits that he ended up drinking three bottles every day for two years, until the poison caught up with him and began dissolving him from the inside out. 

William Bailey, The Man Who Prescribed Byers Radithor, Was A Known Fraud
William Bailey, The Man ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Horrifying Story Of The Man Who Rotted Internally From Radiation Poisoning
Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/No Restrictions

William J.A. Bailey wasn't a doctor, even though he claimed to be. He was a Harvard dropout who got rich quick after developing Radithor, a deadly solution of radium dissolved in water. He was basically a quack constantly in trouble with the law, who profited off numerous short-lived business start ups. Remarkably, even though Byers died as a direct result of Radithor, Bailey was never charged with Byers's death. The FDA shut down his business, but Bailey had already done his damage. The amount of people who died from Radithor is unknown, but he sold approximately 400,000 bottles of the stuff –  1,400 of which Byers himself purchased.   

Byers Probably Took Radithor To Help His Performance In The Bedroom
Byers Probably Took Radi... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Horrifying Story Of The Man Who Rotted Internally From Radiation Poisoning
Photo: Falk, NY/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The quick story is that Byers fell on a train, hurt his arm, took Radithor, and thought it made him better so he kept taking it. There is, though, perhaps another reason Byers was so enthusiastic about Radithor, to the point where he reportedly even gave cases of the stuff to his girlfriends and his race horses. 

Byers had a reputation as a ladies' man. At Yale, his nickname was "Foxy Grandpa." His fall on the train reportedly did not only injure his arm, but also his game. Byers complained of a sort of "run-down feeling" that messed up his athletic and sexual performance. Luckily for Byers (well, actually incredibly unluckily), there was a product on the market that claimed to solve all of these issues. Of course, the sexually reparative nature of Radithor was only rumored, but it is unsurprising that a man entering his 50s with a reputation for being popular with women would seek out anything to help him maintain his "Foxy Grandpa" status.  

Byers's Horrific Death Ended The American Public's Romance With Radium-Infused Products
Byers's Horrific Death E... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Horrifying Story Of The Man Who Rotted Internally From Radiation Poisoning
Photo: Radior Cosmetics/New York Tribute Magazine/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The problem with touting radioactivity as curative was that it simply wasn't true. Luckily, most of these quack elixirs were phony, and contained no radium at all (of course, this was not the case with Radithor). Still, there was a myriad of products on the market meant to be insanely good for you – there were radium-infused beauty creams, toothpastes, soaps, bars of chocolates – you name it. The American public had an obsession with radium in the 1920s and '30s that only faded after Byers's death brought the real dangers of radium to light.