Radithor: A Brief Study of Radioactive Quackery

Joshua Yoon
March 16, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: An artist's vision of what a quack looks like, who is attempting to take out a tooth from his patient. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the monumental discovery of radium by the Curies, scientists all over the world were clamoring to get their hands on radium for various scientific and medical applications. For some, radium seemed to offer itself as an alternative method to invasive surgery. [1] And for others, they believed harnessing its radioactivity would produce profound feats of rejuvenation. [2]

However, the subject on the biological effects of radium was controversial at the time. There were claims that radium worked by direct end-organ stimulation while others felt that radium worked indirectly by stimulating the adrenals or thyroid. Despite conflict over the biological effects, there was a general consensus that the ionizing radiation (X-rays, gamma rays) within the organism is needed to maintain normal physiological processes. [2] Of course, scientists today would consider this to be in the realm of pseudo-science (just as it would be shown in Fig. 1) but back then, this was convincing enough for many that radioactivity was the solution to poor health. It would ironically, as we will see in this report, claim the lives of many innocent people.

The Rise of Mild Radium therapy

During the early days of radioactive-therapy, physicians utilized the high- energy beta and gamma emissions of radium and its daughter elements to fight off cancer- infested tissue. At the time, it was the best treatment that doctors could offer but it caused concern among those who thought it may be too harmful. Based on American homeopathic practices that were still prevalent during that age, cancer physicians started to turn towards "mild radium therapy," to distance themselves from destructive procedures. By having a much smaller dose of radiation, doctors hoped this would prove to be a more effective way of treating their patients. [1]

One person interested in this new technique was William Bailey. Born and raised in Boston, a Harvard dropout, and a noted scam artist, he pursued inventing new lines of radioactive patent medicines for a good decade or so of his life. He claimed endocrine dysfunction was the root of many problems people faced, including anemia, cancer, depression and other diseases. With the power of radium's alpha particles, these problems would go away. Bailey developed several products over the next few years, but none of them matched Radithor's run of success. Radithor was advertised as a radioactive mineral water that contained a secret mixture of radium and mesothorium. Although the exact composition is unknown, scientific studies done later indicate that each $1 half-ounce bottle originally contained slightly more than 1 uCi each of radium 228 and radium 226. But with strong promotional material with some pamphlets emphasizing its powers as a sexual stimulant and aphrodisiac, Radithor was a hit all around the globe. [1]

To safeguard the drug from the government, Bailey distributed pamphlets outlining the science behind Radithor and "behind-the-scenes" pictures of how it was created. They were later turned out to be fakes, but nevertheless, convinced many physicians that Radithor was a legitimate drug for treating the 150 diseases that was listed. In reality, what Bailey had simply done was mix radium and mesothorium with distilled water and selling them with much higher prices. The pamphlets also highlighted its ability to act as a sexual stimulant, where it's stated:

"There is no doubt due to the stimulation of the adrenals, thyroid, and pituitary, as well as the gonads. By this method of treatment, unusual success has attended the treatment of sexual weakness, impotency, frigidity, decreased libido, and other sex aberrations." [1]

With so much momentum and the fact that Bailey was under no formal investigation at the time, there was no stopping him. But his scam would soon come to an end.

The Downfall of Radioactive Patent Medicines

A young man named Eben MacBurney Byers was at the time during the 1920s was primarily known as a millionaire, an internationally known industrialist, sportsman, and chairman of the A.M. Byers iron foundry of Pittsburgh and New York City. [2] In 1927, after he injured his arm, Byers began experiencing pain and a lower level of stamina. After consulting Charles Clinton Moyar, a well-known Pittsburgh physiotherapist, he began consuming Radithor, drinking at a rate of several half-ounce bottles a day. He claimed to have felt much better and was recommending it to his friends left and right. After a two year period where he had consumed close to 1,400 bottles of Radithor, he began to lose weight, experience more headaches and toothaches. Radiologist Joseph Steiner then looked at Byers' radiographs and with the help of Frederic B. Flinn, a prominent radium expert from Columbia University, confirmed that Byers' body was slowly decomposing as a result of the massive radium intoxication from the Radithor. [1]

Meanwhile, a full investigation run by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was underway based on the fact that Radithor was one of the few patent medicines that actually contained a significantly high level of radioactivity. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also filed a complaint accusing Bailey Radium Laboratories of false advertisement and to back up their claim, they asked for Byers' testimony. As he was too ill at the time to be present at the court, a special attorney then was sent to take his testimony and described him in gruesome detail:

"Young in years and mentally alert, he could hardly speak. His head was swathed in bandages. He had undergone two successive 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." [1]

As it was found later, Byers had suffered from necrosis of the jaw, swollen kidney cortex, and other severe medical conditions. In addition, his breath and bones were found to be highly radioactive. Later on a systematic study was done to show that levels of radiation due to drinking Radithor far exceeded levels that scientists would normally classify as lethal today. [3]

The death of Byers also resulted in the end of radioactive patent medicine. In 1931, the FTC issued a cease-and-desist order halting the Bailey Radium Laboratories from producing more of its famed Radithor. Every bottle from every store that was found selling it was taken away from public use. With mounting evidence from others stating radium's harm, counter-pamphlets were sent around to warn the public of its dangers.


As a newfound discovery, radioactivity had a profound effect on society in ways no one could have predicted. It was however, also misunderstood, and as a result claimed the lives of many who were uninformed of the dangers of radioactivity. Not only were people like Byers caught in the hype of mild radium therapy, women who were painting glowing clock hands in factories were paying a hefty price as well for their work. They were known to consume some of the radioactive paint while working and had them painted on their nails and faces to achieve a glow, but had to later suffer severe health issues. [4]

When looking at other notable cases of scientific quackery there is a common combination of (1) false advertising and (2) an uninformed audience. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that having a good, basic understanding of science can make scientific quackery quickly become a thing of the past just as Radithor did.

© Joshua Yoon. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. M. Macklis, "Radithor and the era of mild radium therapy," J. Amer. Med. Assoc. 264, 614 (1990).

[2] R. M. Macklis and B. Beresford, "Radiation Hormesis," J. Nucl. Med 32, 350 (1991).

[3] R. M. Macklis, M. R. Bellerive, and J. L. Humm, "The Radiotoxicology of Radithor: Analysis of an Early Case of Iatrogenic Poisoning by a Radioactive Patent Medicine," J. Am. Med. Assoc. 264, 619 (1990).

[4] M. Estrada, "Radium Dials and Radium Girls," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.