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Eben Byers

Eben McBurney Byers (April 12, 1880 - March 31, 1932) was a wealthy American socialite, athlete, and industrialist who earned notoriety in the early 1930s after a gruesome illness and death caused by radiation poisoning resulting from the consumption of a popular patent medicine made from radium dissolved in water.

The son of industrialist Alexander Byers, he was educated at St. Paul's School and Yale College, where he earned a reputation as an athlete and ladies' man. Byers eventually became the chairman of the Girard Iron Company, which had been created by his father, and was the U.S. Amateur Golf Champion of 1906. In 1927, while returning via chartered train from the annual Harvard-Yale football game, he fell from his berth and injured his arm. Byers complained of persistent pain and a doctor suggested that he take Radithor, a patent medicine manufactured by William J. A. Bailey. Bailey was a Harvard College dropout who falsely claimed to be a doctor of medicine and who became rich from the sale of Radithor, which he made by dissolving radium in water to high concentrations, and which he held could cure many ailments by stimulating the endocrine system. He offered physicians a 17% rebate on the prescription of each dose of Radithor.

Byers began taking enormous doses of Radithor, which he believed had greatly improved his health. He drank nearly 1400 bottles of Radithor. [1] In the process he probably subjected himself to more than three times the acute lethal radiation dose. By 1930, when he stopped taking the remedy, he had accumulated significant amounts of radium in his bones, leading to fractures, lesions, loss of teeth, and eventually the loss of most of his jaw and to the appearance of holes in his skull. According to Oliver Sacks's book Uncle Tungsten, Byers "died grotesquely as his bones disintegrated, like Monsieur Valdemar in the Edgar Allan Poe story." Byers's gruesome death inspired the Wall Street Journal headline "The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off."

His illness and death received much publicity, leading to a heightened awareness of the dangers of radiation poisoning, and to the adoption of laws that increased the powers of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). William Bailey was never tried for Byers's death, but his business was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission.

Byers is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


  • Roger M. Macklis, "The Great Radium Scandal," Scientific American, 269(2), pp. 94-99, Aug. 1993.
  • Literary Digest, 16 April 1932. Reprinted at Accessed Jan. 4, 2006
  • "Eben M. Byers Dies of Radium Poisoning: Noted Sportsman, 51, Had Drunk a Patented Water for a Long Period: Criminal Inquiry Begun: Pittsburgh and New York Steel Man Won Amateur Golf Title--Was Prominent on Turf," New York Times, 1 April 1932.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Eben_Byers". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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