A Deep Dive Into History: The Radium Fad
How Radioactive Material Made Its way Into Everyday Products
“It can even be thought that radium could become very dangerous in criminal hands, and here the question can be raised whether mankind benefits from knowing the secrets of Nature, whether it is ready to profit from it or whether this knowledge will not be harmful for it.” -Pierre Curie
Food For Thought
A Historical Deep Dive: The Radium Fad
When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898, they understood the dangers of consuming it.
Unfortunately, all kinds of companies — from cosmetics and hair, to medical tablets and drinks, to sports equipment and braces (even jockstraps!) — saw radium as an opportunity to profit.
Luckily for consumers, the majority of companies that advertised radium in their products were lying.
But there were a few that stuck to their word and actually included radium. These products with authentic radium were expensive (radium wasn’t cheap), so few could afford them — a fact that probably helped keep radium from becoming a genuine public health crisis.
And that brings us to Eben Byers, a handsome, wealthy Pittsburgh native, athlete, amateur golfer, and known ‘ladies man’ — someone who could certainly afford any radium-infused product he wanted.
One night, Byers injured his arm falling out of a railway sleeping berth. He was left with chronic pain that began to affect his sports career and energy level. His physician prescribed him RadiThor, an energy drink with a high concentration of radium dissolved in water.
As we are sure you have already caught on, RadiThor was a complete sham. In fact, the ‘doctor’ behind the drink wasn’t a doctor at all. RadiThor was invented by William Bailey, a Harvard dropout who lied about his credentials and claimed to be a doctor of medicine. He quickly became rich off the sale of RadiThor. Among many other outlandish benefits, Bailey said that RadiThor increased energy, helped numb pain, kept you youthful, and healed an assortment of ailments. Bailey also offered physicians a 1/6 rebate for every dose of RadiThor they prescribed…
Byers was so convinced that the drink worked, that even after his arm healed he continued to drink it. He even upped his dosage to two bottles a day. And this wasn’t a cheap habit. One bottle of RadiThor went for a $1, or $15 in today’s dollars.
For more than three years, Byers kept to this addiction until, inevitably, his body began deteriorating from the inside out. We’ll save you from the gory details, but ultimately, he had consumed at least enough radium to kill three people. Even as his body began to shut down, he still believed that RadiThor wasn’t the cause and continued to drink it. On March 31, 1932, he passed away.
His body was so radioactive at the time of death, that he had to be buried in a lead coffin. 33 years later, when he was exhumed for research, his body was still just as radioactive as the day he was buried. 😮
So what happened to Bailey, the quack doctor who invented RadiThor?
His business was shut down.
That’s it. He was never tried for Byers’ death. In fact, he later founded a new company called “Radium Institute,” which marketed and sold other radioactive products — including belt-clips and paperweights.
Byers’ death created a heightened awareness of the dangers of radium. The Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation to challenge the claims that radium-containing products, like RadiThor, were harmless. This investigation was the catalyst for giving the FDA more legal power in health claims and eventually led to the FDA gaining control over the entire drug industry.
If there is any moral to this story, it’s to be cautious of what you put in your body. It’s unclear how many people the “radium fad” killed or injured. As with most things, make sure to vet the results for yourself before blindly trusting the general school of thought.
Food For Thought — Literally
The story above is the epitome of “you are what you eat.” And with all the fads and diet trends out there, what can you trust?
In this episode, Chad and Ian discuss the myriad of theories about nutrition and explain how you can get the most out of the food you put into your body.
Yum Yum Radium?
“But there was a time when energy drinks actually contained real energy. The active ingredient in these drinks was radium, a radioactive element that releases a packet of radiant energy with every atomic decay. While the connection between consuming a radioactive element and reaping a perceived energy boost is tenuous at best, it didn’t stop people in the early 1900s from ignoring the known downsides of ingesting radioactivity and risking the long-term health consequences.”
Give It A Read
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.
Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill….
Here’s A Fun Fact
Wayne Allwine, who voiced Mickey Mouse for over 30 years, married Russi Taylor, the woman who currently voices Minnie Mouse. 🤗
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This was originally published on March 12, 2019 as The Mission’s daily newsletter. To subscribe, go here.
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