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.

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.

24 thoughts on “Radioactive Water Was Once A (Horrifying) Health Fad

    1. You’re speaking authoritatively about Ivermectin when the data shows that you are wrong and that the medication that is, in fact snake oil is the one known as the vaccine. It was pushed on society as an experimental drug that supposedly was 100% safe and effective. Only the most blind still believe that. So, get your 16th “booster” and then remember the guy who drank 1400 bottles of Radithor.

  1. The movie Radium Girls was an interesting docudrama about a fictional company called American Radium that hired young women to paint watch faces out of radium, closely mirroring the actual story of workers at the U.S. Radium company. Because they frequently had to lick the brush tips to fashion them into sharp points, the workers ingested high doses over a fairly short time. Cancer after only a few years seemed to be a common occurrence.

    1. The story was internationally known, I believe.
      Here in Germany, my (our) physics teacher told the whole physics class about this. Not sure if it was about same company, though, or a tragedy that happened in the whole clock/instruments business.

      But that was another time, maybe. In the “atomic age”, the dangers of radioactivity were played down. There used to be US toys (chemistry kits etc) from the 1950s that included radioactive samples. Must have been because of very careless/naive mindset of the day.

  2. As a Brit, we have our own horror stories of quack cures. Thankfully (?) most of our radioactive “cures” were based on radon in solution and as an inhaler rather than actual radium – and were made from the mine tailings of radium production. You can still occasionally find them around the mine where they were made.

    Of course, snake oil is really only meant to stop your snake from squeaking. Well, it *was* a brand of lubricant here in the same family as 3-in-One and WD40.

  3. Love that the water is triple distilled. Can’t be too careful about what you put in your body.

    Our town had one of those radium dial painters until the late 70’s. They tore it down, dug up and shipped off the septic field, and built a Mcdonalds on top.

  4. In the Early 60’s we cleaned out my Great Aunts house, where she had all sorts of Antique Books and Clocks.. She had a Bottle of ‘Glow in the Dark Paint’ for re-painting the Hands on the Clocks and Aircraft Instruments.. It Glowed with out ever exposing it to light!.. I remember playing with it, But I never learned what happened to it..

    The world was a little more Lax back then.. I also played with Containers of Mercury.. Likely 2 Cups of the Stuff.. Really Heavy, and it was strange to push your hand into it, and have it push your hand back out.. !..

    The Asbestos that coated the Hot Water pipes sure was Fragile when I played with it.. Made Grandpa Mad at me and he would yell at me to Stop It.. !

    Mon would go into the local Mercury Mines as a kid, and rub the Mercury on her teeth to turn them Black, then play ‘Witch’.. I never did that but she told me the Stories..

    Oh what fun us kids had..

    Now the Present Generations have to wear Helmets when riding Bikes.. Whats that all about.. :)

  5. When I was a teenager, I visited a nice little area in Austria call Bad Hofgastein. They still have caves and swimming pools that have Radium infused water. In history, they visitors would go into the cames for minutes to hours to take in the “healing effects” of Radium gas.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.