Imagine you’ve got a 50 year old male, we’ll call E.B., sitting in front of you in your medical history emergency room. He’s coming in because he’s having problems eating.
His teeth are falling out and he’s having jaw pain. His vitals are fine. He has no facial swelling. He does have several loose teeth, however.
He says it all started when he fell out of a bunk bed and hurt his arm 5 years ago.
He may or may not have had x-rays or formal diagnosis–this is not clear. They were using x-rays for just about everything back then (early 20th century).
He went to see his doctor who gave him a new medication which was supposed to stimulate his endocrine system.
He loved the stuff. He drank a lot of it for years. Like, a lot. He gave it to his friends, his girlfriends, and even his racehorses. He thinks he’s had about 1,400 doses of the stuff.
His arm got better and he felt great! Not only did he no longer have pain, but, just like his doctor said, it did improve his energy levels and libido. His girlfriends at the time started to call him, at the age of 47 if you can believe it, the “foxy grandpa”.
Everything was great up until last year when the medication seemed to stop working. He was no longer getting that extra zip, as they say. And now, a year later, in 1931, his teeth are starting to fall out and, oh-by-the-way, he should mention his headaches and jaw pain and weight loss. He asks, “doc, do you think it has anything to do with stopping that medication?” (Radithor)
What you’ll come to find out is that this man has been taking a very special medication. It’s not available by prescription, mind you, but he did get it from his doctor. And, importantly, his doctor, in turn got it from another “doctor”--more about the quotes later.
You see, this story is taking place in the time before the FDA had the power to regulate what could legally be sold as a prescription medication. If you were an enterprising con artist, you could come up with a formulation and “patent” it as a medicine which allowed you not only to sell it directly to the public (or better yet through physicians), but you could do so without having to certify its safety profile or limit it by requiring prescription. Safety measures are, we can all agree, tedious.
Our patient in this story is named Eben (short for Ebenezer) Byers and he has been taking a patent medication called “Radithor” for three years, nearly around the clock. If something is supposedly good for you, it’s best to take as much of it as possible without moderation or concern. What do you think might be special about Radithor?
As you might have guessed, Radithor is radiation in a bottle. It is distilled water with a guaranteed 1 mCi (1 microCurie) amount of both radium 228 and 226 therein. The manufacturer is even willing to guarantee that you are getting irradiated because they had a thousand-dollar bounty out to anyone who could prove that there wasn’t radiation in each and every bottle. That’s standing by your brand, if your brand is being scientifically negligent, but to my knowledge in researching this, the bounty was never claimed so I guess that’s worth something?
You could find printed advertisements or articles in and around 1928 about Radithor. In one example it was said the radium inside could “add fifteen years to anybody’s life.” An inventor that, at least as far as I could tell, had nothing to do with the making or selling of Radithor wrote that the “radio-active water makes old men feel young - peps em up. Tones up the system, reduces high blood pressure, and softens hardening arteries.”
It should be said that a general rule in the world of medicine is that if something is said to treat many different conditions that have many different causes, it is more likely that said treatment does nothing at all. Except for my orgone chamber. That’s the only exception to the rule.
Radithor was worse than that because not only did it not offer treatment for the things mentioned, it was intensely dangerous.
But people didn’t quite appreciate that at the time because radium and radioactivity as medicine were in vogue. After the Curies discovered radium and its initial radioactive properties, using radiation as a medicinal therapy became very popular and there was no early fear or respect for the effects of radiation. We did an episode a long time ago on the “Radium Girls” which did touch on the hazardous ignorance of what radiation could do to the human body at the time. This was also a time when your local shoe store had x-ray boxes for making sure those shoes had a snug fit around your metatarsals. Radithor is another interesting example of this fascination with radiation but with a quack medicine angle. That’s a bad combination.
One of the surprising things about the doctor that brought “Radithor” to the market is the fact that he wasn’t actually a doctor at all. He was a guy who went to Harvard for a bit and had to drop out. He didn’t even make it to medical school, but he did go to Harvard so, he was at the school that had a medical school, and, I guess, that’s close enough to doctor in the early 20th century.
That man’s name was William J.A. Bailey. He had a bit of a rough start in life. He was born in Boston, MA in 1884 as one of 9 kids, raised by his mother in poverty as his father died when he was young. Somehow he does make it into Harvard and goes on to not finish as mentioned and apparently mounting debts got the best of him.
Getting into and finishing medical school is hard. Saying you have a doctorate from the University of Vienna is much easier and probably harder to check up on in the age before Google, because we are, again, talking about the 1920’sl.
I’m not sure of the details but, aside from using a fake “M.D.” after his name to sell Radithor and other sketchy meds later in his career, considering Bailey did plead guilty to the illegal practice of medicine in 1927, I suspect he was doing some real sketchy impersonation of a doctor-stuff in some manner.
And “not-a-doctor” Doctor Bailey had a history of being sketchy. He was nothing if not entrepreneurial. Prior to making and selling Radithor, Bailey had a host of unseemly start up business ventures.
My favorite was the Carnegie Engineering Corp which was promising a newly designed automobile–I don’t know the exact year but imagining it’s Ford Model T times–for the low low price of $600. That was probably 4.2 million in today’s dollars.
All you had to do is send Bailey your $50 deposit and you and all the others would definitely get that car, eventually when he got around to it.
If you happened to go to see the car manufacturing facility, the good news is that there was one. The bad news was that it was an abandoned sawmill owned by Bailey that had a single box of tools therein. I’m not sure if he owned the tools but, given most of his history, I’m sure he stole them from an orphan or something.
He paid a fine and did 30 days hard time in prison for this venture. He was ultimately undeterred and, I believe, this is the worst consequence he may have ever faced, spoiler alert.
As mentioned, radiation and radium were all the craze at the time. So Bailey thought he’d get in on it and there’s a fun call back to an earlier episode here. In 1922, he founded the Associated Radium Chemists company, and while he was workshopping a way to turn a profit with some sort of medicinal radioactive formulation, he happens to get in touch with a guy named Dr. John R. Brinkley (aka Dr. Goat Balls) and they try to come up with some sort of mashup project–a bullshit Voltron of radioactivty and goat testicles of some sort. Sadly it did not work out and Dr. Brinkley would go on his own quack path to convince people to have him surgically put goat testicles into their bodies for “reasons”. Seriously, we did an episode on it if you’re curious.
By the 1930’s Bailey had three different companies selling radioactive products to the public but, by far, the most successful was Bailey Radium Laboratories out of East Orange, N.J. It made Radithor and sold it at a crazy profit.
Bailey’s company was believed to have sold 400,000 bottles at $1 each (roughly 6.9 million dollars in today’s money, actually) at a %400 profit margin. Not bad for a literal poison being sold legally on the market.
Let’s return to our patient and find out how this all happened.
As I said before, the unfortunate patient in our opening story was one, Eben Byers. Things will not go well for him.
Born to a wealthy family in 1880, Eben was an Ayn Rand fantasy come to life. He was a wealthy industrialist who became president of his father’s company, the Girard Iron Company, probably based on his own talents and had nothing to do with his family ties. He was therefore incredibly wealthy.
He was an avid sportsman–especially golf. Apparently he won the national amateur golf championship in 1906, back when golf clubs each weighed 30 pounds and were without carbon fiber and probably had sandpaper instead of grip tape, so that is an impressive feat.
He was a Yale graduate and a fateful trip back to his alma mater for a sporting event would change everything for him.
Eben Byers was riding a train back from the 1927 Harvard - Yale football game, as you did in 1927. He was in a sleeping berth (i.e. train car bunk bed) and when the train lurched, he was thrown to the ground. This was before the invention of seatbelts or safety measures at all, I think. If you don’t believe me, look at the football equipment and death and disfigurement rate of that sport at the time. Seriously.
He hurt his arm when he fell and it wasn’t getting better. I didn’t see any documentation of a broken bone, but his arm seemed to be an issue for a while. He goes to see his doctor for treatment and relief of the pain.
His doctor is a guy named C.C. Moyar in Pittsburgh. Moyar gave Byers Radithor. Since this wasn’t a prescribed medication in the traditional sense, Moyar, and other docs of the time, would suggest it and other patent medicines to their patients who would buy the stuff from the doctor. Interestingly enough, William J.A. Bailey would offer Moyer a ~16% kickback each bottle sold to their patients. There were many other docs doing this. Certainly no opportunity for corruption could exist there and I’m sure the Radithor recommendations were quite objective.
This goes on for about three years and an estimated 1,400 doses of Radithor are consumed by Eben Byers. While he seems to think it’s helping–I mean, his arm does incidentally get better at some point–he is killing himself slowly with doses of radiation. Well, I guess it’s open to interpretation that Bailey and Byer’s doctor are also killing him in a sense. It’s all bad stuff.
The story I made up of him coming to the ER at the beginning of this episode refers to the time Byers started to have his teeth start fall out in 1931. He had stopped the Radithor a year prior as it didn’t seem to be giving him the same zip in his step or moxie or whatever it was supposed to do. It was, however, filling his skeleton with radium and its accompanying radioactivity.
Byers worsens. His jaw pain worsens as he suffers from osteonecrosis–death of bone–from the accumulating radium. This similarly affected the Radium Girls as you might recall. He’s losing weight, developing worsening headaches, and eventually drastic measures have to be taken as more and more of his skull about the mandible and upper jaw are rotting away with radiation.
I’m not exaggerating there. Byers ultimately undergoes multiple surgeries to remove these necrotic bits of bone including his entire mandible and almost all of his maxillary (upper) jaw. The surrounding soft tissues are horrendously damaged in this area. He is only left with two of his upper teeth and literally nothing else of his lower face. I will say, there are pictures of this aftermath available on the internet, but I would suggest that they are extremely graphic even for a seasoned ER physician. It’s okay not to Google things you can’t unsee.
As this disfigurement is happening, the winds of bureaucratic change are mounting against people like JA Bailey and their patent medications–albeit, slowly as you might expect.
Way before this whole episode there was plenty of mounting concern over “patent medications” such as Radithor and any number of other non-radioactive snake oils. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug act was passed which went on to help with the rise of the FDA, spelling a beginning to the end of the patent medicine era. It won’t be until 1938 that products marketed as medications would have to be shown to be safe and effective through research.
We did get many products such as VicksVaporub and Milk of Magnesia, still used today, out of the patent medicine era–though their claims as to what they could do medically speaking have been heavily edited since the 1930’s.
But all of this doesn’t help Eben Byers as we’ll see.
In this brewing atmosphere of patent medicine skepticism, the FTC formed a case against Bailey and, as part of their investigation, they sent a reporter to interview Byers at his oceanfront mansion in Southampton, Long Island. That guy’s report read: “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”, “a more gruesome experience in a more gorgeous setting would be hard to imagine.”
Not long after, Byers died of cancer at age 51. What kind isn’t clear. The estimated level of radiation due to radium ingestion was 3x the lethal limit. His bones were calculated to have 36 micrograms of radium deposited throughout them. 10 micrograms would be at the fatal level of such things, for reference.
He had to be buried in a lead lined coffin and when he was exhumed in 1965 for study, his remains were still very much radioactive.
Byers’ death did help popularize the crusade against patent medications and people like Bailey.
Speaking of self-described doctor Bailey, he was ultimately forced to admit that Radithor had no therapeutic value and could not say it was harmless thanks to an FTC order filed in 1931.
He did no jail time for any of this because it was the 1930’s I guess? Seems crazy to me. Bailey said he was not put out of business by the FTC but rather blamed the Great Depression.
Lest you worry about Mr. Bailey’s post script, I’ll have you know that the radiation did get to him as well. He died in 1949 of bladder cancer, aged 64. He was a wealthy man thanks to Radithor and, 20 years after his death, he too was exhumed and found to be “ravaged by radiation” all that time later. So, I guess that’s all fitting in with a morally ambivalent cold universe in some way? I don’t know, it’s just how it works sometimes.
There you have the story of Eben Byers and the patent medicine, Radithor.
Doctor with a mustache.