Tales from the Nuclear Age:
Copyright © 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire
Aug. 30, 2010
After the Curies’ discovery, the new radioactive Radium seemed to take Paris by storm. It glowed spontaneously, had no source of energy, and there was this young woman scientist who was wont to remove a tube of the stuff from her smock pocket and dazzle the onlookers with magic that glowed in the dark! Soon Pierre discovered that the mysterious rays could destroy cancer cells. Now the fame of this material spread to other countries. The medical profession quickly took up the cause of what seemed to be an amazing cure.
Marie noted “one of our joys was to go into our workroom at night…the glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights…”
Soon, in the early 1900’s, a thriving industry based on Radium began to bring products to market for health improvement, cosmetics and cancer prevention. An industrialist named Armet de Lisle started a factory to make medical products containing Radon and Radium salts, and the Curies advised him on their techniques for refining Pitchblend. They did not patent the processes they created, believing pure science should operate for the betterment of humanity. De Lisle did provide them with quantities of Radium salts for use in their work.
Soon products with names like Tho-Radia, Undark, and Radithor began to move off the shelves. Radiation is good for you,
helps your complexion, gives you a healthy glow. Use Uranium blankets for arthritis, wear a radiation pendant for Rheumatism, take Thorium laced medicine to aid digestion.
The Radiendocrinator was a 3 inch gold case containing 250 microcuries of Radium (a serious quantity). One took it to bed and placed it over the endocrine glands! Alternatively, the maker advised men to “Wear the adaptor like an athletic supporter…putting the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed…”
One company sold a water cooler five gallon jug, to sit atop the office water cooler billed as “Natural Radon Water”. There was one small detail. Radon has a half life of only three days. By the time the water hit the market most of the Radon was gone. But the list seemed endless, and the public marveled all the more at these strange new miracle substances. Radiation was new, exciting, and good for you.
The entrance of fraudulent products into this market introduced a bizarre and ironic twist. Some companies sold
harmless false products containing no radiation and thus causing no harm. They were soon shut down by authorities because they did not contain the high doses of radiation claimed on the package!
The new Radiation Industry quickly spread to the United States. In the U.S, Radium cures reached their maximum popularity during the 1920’s. The Revigator, a crock pot lined with radioactive ore, produced radioactive water overnight. It was manufactured by a company of the same name, headquartered in San Francisco. Patented in 1912, sales were so brisk the company created branch offices across the United States. Sales reached several hundred thousand units.
Do you have high blood pressure, goitre, stomach cramps, female trouble, kidney problems, constipation? Dr. C. Davis wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine that
“Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life…”
By the early 1930’s one could buy radium-containing toothpaste, beauty creams, chocolate bars, soap, ear plugs, suppositories and contraceptives.
In East Orange New Jersey, a company sprang up with the name of the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc. They sold “Certified Radioactive Water” for drinking, under the trade name of Radithor. The company head, “Dr.” William J. Bailey, made Radithor by dissolving Radium in water to a very high concentration level. Mr. Bailey was a Harvard drop-out, who claimed (falsely) to be a medical doctor. The product was making him rich. He gave any doctor who prescribed Radithor a 17% kickback on the price of each scrip. But Radithor was to have the dubious honor of causing at least one death.
Enter Mr. Eben McBurney Byers. He was born in Pittsburgh Pa.’s North Side on Ridge Avenue, on the 12th of April, 1880. He was the son of Steel Industrialist Alexander Byers. Educated at Yale College, he gained the college reputation of a serious golfer and somewhat of a ladies man to boot. He went on to become the U.S. Amateur Golf Champion of 1906, and later became CEO of the Girard Iron Company, one of his father’s creations.
In 1927 Eben chartered a private train to attend the Harvard-Yale football game. On the way home, perhaps a little dizzy, he fell from the upper bunk on the train and injured his arm. Suffering from pain, he consulted Pittsburgh physician Dr. C.C. Moyar, who prescribed Radithor. It was supposed to cure by stimulating the endocrine system. Instructions on the bottle suggested patients drink from the bottle itself, and swallow an entire bottle after a meal. Eben did so, and felt very much better after the first bottle. So much better, in fact, that he decided if one bottle worked, many bottles would work even better. He began consuming three bottles of Radithor each day.
Radium works like Barium or Calcium in the human body. When digested, it travels to the bone marrow and sits there to the end of its life. The main isotope of Radium (Ra226) has a half life of 1,601 years. Half of it disappears in that amount of time. So the atoms of Radium sit in the bone and bombard the local bone tissue with Alpha particle radiation. It is reasonably certain this agitation to the cells can ultimately induce cancer. (It is important to distinguish here from the modern Radium treatments for Cancer patients. These treatments can be quite effective, and we note that the Radium in these treatments never enters the body; thus no additional dangers are encountered by the patient).
Radithor was a mixture of one microgram of Radium and one microgram of Thorium compounds (Thorium was cheaper), per bottle. It seemed to lessen Eben’s pain. He told his friends, and cases of Radithor began arriving at his Pittsburgh address, at $30 per (depression era) case. Later he also shipped cases to his South Carolina address. Eben, at age 50, continued Radithor for quite some time. After about a year be began to lose the “toned-up feeling”. He began suffering severe headaches, and losing weight. Pain developed in other parts of his body, especially in the jaw. He lost several teeth. It was later estimated he had consumed over 1400 bottles of Radithor. Finally an expert was consulted and a diagnosis of radiation poisoning was issued. By this time his bone structure was actually crumbling. Finally his entire jaw had to be removed. He died in great pain in a New York hospital at age 51, in March of 1932.
The Herald Tribune accused Dr. Moyar of having several hundred patients suffering from Radithor effects. He denied these charges, claiming he himself consumed as much of the water as Byers took, and still felt quite healthy. He said Byers had died from blood complications which caused gout.
When Eben’s case hit the New York newspapers, Bailey, owner of the Radithor Company, closed its doors and stopped manufacturing the product. There was an investigation and eventually a “cease and desist” order was issued by the FTC, long after the company had disappeared. Bailey was never charged for Byers’ death. Undaunted, he continued to market radioactive products, founding a new company in New York called the “Radium Institute”. He marketed radioactive belt buckles, paperweights and a mechanism to make water radioactive.
Commenting on Eben Byers’ death, the Wall Street Journal observed “The Radium Water worked fine until his Jaw came off.”
And the Radium story has more to tell …
(to be continued …)