In 1925, a new wonder drug called Radithor appeared on the palette of available medicines and gained notoriety by being advertised as a successful therapeutic option primarily for impotence and fatigue, but also for more than 150 endocrine disorders. The drug was touted as a metabolic stimulant and aphrodisiac. In the five years of its existence, this potent drug reached a sales figure of four hundred thousand vials, only to be soon withdrawn from the market. What was the danger behind the little vial?

Manufacturer and composition

The American company Bailey Radium Laboratories, under the leadership of its owner William J. Bailey, launched a new drug – the so-called certified radioactive water was supposed to be powerful, effective and completely harmless at the same time. It was called “Eternal Sun” and was sold in 16.5 ml vials.

“Just a tiny bottle of apparently lifeless, colorless and tasteless water is all that eye can see or the tongue can detect, yet in this bottle there reposes the greatest therapeutic force known to mankind – radioactivity.”

In the 1940s and 1960s, spectroscopic analysis was performed that detected Radithor as a mixture of radium isotopes (226Ra and 228Ra) diluted three times with distilled water. It was also demonstrated that the composition of this ‘drug” varied depending on the product series. The price at the time was $1 (with a margin of 400 percent!). Today, it would cost about $ 15.

Why did Radithor come on the market in the first place?

After the discovery of radium in 1898, the practice focused on the physiological effects of this radioactive element rather than its tumoricidal power. Mild radium therapy was soon adopted, and radium and its isotopes were administered orally and parenterally in the order of micrograms to several thousand people in the United States and Europe. The indications for which it was prescribed were hypertension, rheumatic diseases, and metabolic disorders. There were two different opinions – one claimed that radium acted directly on the target organ, and the other that radium directly stimulated both the adrenal and thyroid glands. One opinion was unanimous – ionized radiation (X-rays and gamma rays) is essential for the organism to maintain its normal physiological processes, which is wrong. Consequently, Radithor was one of the many over-the-counter drugs whose possible long-term effects and dangers were not yet known.


The exact number of patients is not known, but it is certain that four hundred thousand vials were sold worldwide. A number of cases have been documented in which patients consumed more than 1000 vials of Radithor over a period of several years. Only a small fraction (about 20%) of the administered radium ends up in skeletal tissue, and even the small amount of accumulated isotopes can lead to rapid death when administered acutely. It is interesting to note that many of the patients survived for an extended period of time and many were even alive after administration.

Eben M. Byers

Eben M. Byers was an American amateur golf champion and owner of one of the largest metal companies. In his forties, in 1927 to be exact, he injured his shoulder and began taking Radithor under the guidance of his physical therapist. For the first two years, Byers took about three vials of Radithor daily. He was determined to use this therapy because it made him feel vigorous and full of energy. Completely enthralled by the effects, Eben promoted the product to his loved ones and acquaintances and even began to drug his racehorses. It is believed that he consumed more than 1400 vials of Radithor within the first 2 years.

The effects of the radioactive isotopes on Byers’ health did not become apparent until 1930: Byers lost a significant amount of weight and suffered more frequent headaches and toothaches. These symptoms quickly escalated to tooth loss and holes in the skull, requiring the removal of the entire upper jaw and most of the lower jaw. X-rays confirmed that his skeletal tissues began to rapidly decay and disappear because of the poisoning and the accumulation of radium. Eben M. Byers died in 1932 as a result of radiation. When his body was excavated in 1965, the same radioactivity was measured as before his death – 225,000 Bq. Scientists now estimate that this dose would have a lethal effect if applied acutely.

The human body’s resistance to the lethal effects of radioactive radium.

In the years that followed, scientists were puzzled by the fact that E. Byers remained asymptomatic until 1930, despite the very high doses. One of the answers to this puzzle is a compensatory response of the bone marrow to radioactivity – it induces the synthesis of hematopoietic colony-stimulating factors (CSFs). In addition, the heterogeneity of accumulation and concentration of alpha particles in skeletal tissue was determined.


The death of E. Byers set a precedent in the history of radioactive drug formulations. Namely, Radithor and similar radioactive preparations were pulled from the shelves and the FDA initiated an investigation. It was determined that Radithor was just one of the many patents that had been placed on the market with radioactivity doses that were too high. In addition, Bailey Radium Laboratories and its owner were charged with deceptive advertising and exploiting the lack of information to make profits while endangering the lives and health of millions of people.

Nevertheless, this vial was known as the Fountain of Youth for a long period of time.

Translated by Dominik Šutalo



1. Macklis RM, Bellerive MR, Humm JL. The Radiotoxicology of Radithor: Analysis of an Early Case of Iatrogenic Poisoning by a Radioactive Patent Medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1990, 264, 619.

2. Macklis RM. Radithor and the era of mild radium therapy. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1990, 264(5), 614–618.

3. Radithor, pristupljeno 13.12.2022.

Photography source

Image by Dirk Rabe from Pixabay