Eben Byers began drinking radium-infused water that his doctor prescribed for an arm injury in 1927 — but within three years, his bones were disintegrating.
Eben Byers could have lived a privileged, enviable life. The son of a rich industrialist, he attended the best schools in the United States and had his future handed to him on a silver platter. But, after enjoying success as a champion golfer, when he should have been living in the lap of luxury, Eben Byers’ jaw fell off.
Medicine in his time was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is today — and one of the most popular therapeutic methods was the newly-discovered element radium. Unfortunately for Byers, his doctor recommended this treatment after he suffered an arm injury in 1927.
Byers became infamous when he developed “Radithor jaw,” a disease brought on by the ingestion of radium. Before his early death from cancer, the entire lower half of his face fell off as a result of his exposure to the deadly radioactive material.
This is the true but horrifying story of Eben Byers, whose death sparked a revolution in medicine.
Eben Byers’ Early Life Of Privilege
Born Ebenezer McBurney Byers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 12, 1880, Eben Byers was the son of Alexander McBurney Byers. According to the Frick Collection, Alexander Byers was an art collector, financier, and president of his eponymous steel company and the National Iron Bank of Pittsburgh.
Growing up with that level of wealth meant that the younger Byers was privileged enough to have access to the best that money could buy — including schools like the prestigious St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire, and what was then known as Yale College.
But where young Eben Byers really excelled was as a sportsman. In 1906, Byers won the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship, according to the Golf Compendium.
Eventually, Byers’ father made his son the chairman of his business, the A. M. Byers Company, one of the largest wrought iron producers in America. Unfortunately, a tragic accident soon set young Byers on the fateful path to an early death — and a revolution in medicine.
Radithor, The Radioactive Medication That Disfigured Eben Byers’ Jaw
In November 1927, Eben Byers was on the way back home by attending the annual Yale-Harvard football game when the train he was riding lurched to a sudden stop. According to the Allegheny Cemetery Heritage, he fell from his berth, injuring his arm.
His doctor, C. C. Moyer, prescribed him Radithor, a medication made from dissolving radium in water. In the mid-1920s, no one was aware that radioactive material could cause genetic mutations and cancer with high enough levels of exposure. So when a Harvard dropout named William J. Bailey introduced Radithor, it quickly became popular.
According to Medium, Bailey falsely claimed that he was a doctor and even offered physicians a 17 percent rebate on each bottle of Radithor they prescribed.
Over the course of three years, Byers took as many as 1,400 doses of the radium water, drinking up to three bottles of Radithor per day. From 1927 to 1930, Eben Byers claimed that Radithor gave him a “toned-up” feeling, though some reports suggest he took it for a more prurient reason.
According to the Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity, Byers had been known as “Foxy Grandpa” by his classmates at Yale for his ways with the ladies, and the Radithor brought back his famed libido as he approached his late 40s.
But whatever Byers’ reasons were for taking the drug, the side effects were devastating.
The Horrifying Effects Of Radithor Jaw
In 1931, after experiencing extreme weight loss and excessive headaches, Eben Byers was in for the surprise of his life when his jaw began disintegrating. With his bones and tissue falling to pieces from the inside out, Byers looked monstrous. But in some strange act of mercy, the radium poisoning had the positive side effect of him not being able to feel any pain whatsoever.
By the time Eben Byers’ jaw began to fall off and he started suffering other gruesome side effects, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had begun investating Radithor as a dangerous drug. The agency asked Byers to testify, but he was too ill, so they sent an attorney named Robert Winn to his Long Island mansion to interview him.
Winn later wrote, “A more gruesome experience in a more gorgeous setting would be hard to imagine… [Byers’] whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining tissue of his body was disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull.”
On March 31, 1932, Byers died at the age of 51. Though his cause of death was listed as “radium poisoning,” his death was actually due to the cancer he developed because of Radithor. There was so much radium in his body that even his breath was radioactive, and he was buried in a lead-lined coffin to prevent radiation from seeping into the surrounding soil.
According to the New York Times, the FTC soon shut down Bailey’s company, though Bailey later claimed he stopped selling Radithor because the Great Depression had reduced demand for the medication. The government also began clamping down on other businesses that were providing radium-based “medicines,” as Bailey’s was far from the only one in existence at the time.
Bailey continued to defend his creation after Byers’ death, saying, “I have drunk more radium water than any man alive and I never have suffered any ill effects.” He later died from bladder cancer.
Eventually, the powers of the FTC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were expanded, and medications became much more tightly regulated. Today, if a medicine is safe enough to earn the FDA’s seal of approval, it’s partly because Eben Byers’ death — and the subsequent expansion of the government agency’s powers — made it so.
Unfortunately, it came too late for Eben Byers.
Now that you’ve read all about Eben Byers, go inside the story of the Radium Girls, the women who were forced to ingest radium at work. Then, learn about Hisashi Ouchi, the radioactive man who was kept alive for 83 days.