Radioactive Water Was Once a (Horrifying) Health Fad

Take a little time to watch the history of Radithor, a presentation by [Adam Blumenberg] into a quack medicine that was exactly what it said on the label: distilled water containing around 2 micrograms of radium in each bottle (yes, that’s a lot.) It’s fascinatingly well-researched, and goes into the technology and societal environment surrounding such a product, which helped play a starring role in the eventual Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. You can watch the whole presentation in the video, embedded below the break.

If you happen to come across a bottle, perhaps in an antique shop, maybe don’t buy it.

Radium was discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, and despite the deeply saddening case of the Radium Girls (part of humanity’s history with radiation) being settled unhappily in 1928, it took the horrifying death of Eben M. Byers — a wealthy and famous golfer — in 1932 for radium’s dangers to take center stage.

Radium is actually a very interesting substance, best admired from outside of the body. If ingested, due to its chemical structure the human body treats it like calcium and dutifully deposits it into bones. The body then proceeds to have a bad time.

Eben Byers had been drinking Radithor for years before he ultimately died of radium poisoning. At the time of his death, the wealthy Eben Byers was estimated to have consumed some 1,400 bottles. In the hospital near the end of his life, one record states that the very air he exhaled was found to be radioactive. His jaw was literally falling apart. Great holes were in his very bones, and his end was sad indeed. It may be interesting to note that Radithor was explicitly advertised as harmless, and was in fact prescribed to Byers by a physician.

<img decoding="async" data-attachment-id="640169" data-permalink="https://hackaday.com/2023/11/10/radioactive-water-was-once-a-horrifying-health-fad/radio-endocrinator-still-radioactive-100-years-later/" data-orig-file="https://hackaday.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Radio-endocrinator-still-radioactive-100-years-later.png" data-orig-size="495,495" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="Radio endocrinator still radioactive 100 years later" data-image-description data-image-caption="

This long-exposure image shows that another of Bailey’s products — a sort of male enhancement jock strap — is still radioactive over 100 years later.

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A long-exposure fluoroscope image showing that another of Bailey’s products — a sort of male enhancement jock strap — is still radioactive over 100 years later.

What kind of person did it take to capitalize on peoples’ ignorance in such a selfish way? A man like William Bailey, the person behind Radithor and quite a few other quack remedies. There’s no shortage of such people in our world, but history buffs are in luck here because [Adam], as usual, really went the extra mile in learning about the man. Here’s a link to the point in the video where [Adam] talks about William Bailey, and shares all kinds of information that he dug up — even getting his records from Harvard — which paints a picture of a dropout conman. His first foray into sham medicines was a male enhancement that contained strychnine, and from there he got into radium products.

Considering he was such a con man, it’s mildly shocking that his products actually contained radium. Although, that was almost certainly a calculated act. The FDA looked into things when people were getting sick, but at the time, all that was really required was that a product be truthful about what it contained. Radithor was certainly so, and that was that. For a time, anyway. After Eben’s death Radithor was eventually shut down, and the incident helped lead to increased awareness of the need for consumer protection laws, which eventually resulted in the passing of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938.

Find yourself wanting more? Check out the Toxic History! channel for more interesting-slash-horrifying content.

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