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June 14, 2021

In the 1920s, People Thought Radioactive Water Was Good for the Health

Back in the 1920s, people thought that drinking radium, and thorium, infused water was healthy. One of the more famous varieties of this water was sold under the brand name Radithor. It was eventually famously implicated in the illness and subsequent death of an industrialist named Eben Byers, which was accompanied by the headline of “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”.

A bottle of Radithor at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in New Mexico, USA.

Radithor was a well known patent medicine/snake oil that is possibly the best known example of radioactive quackery. It consisted of triple distilled water containing at a minimum 1 microcurie (37 kBq) each of the Radium 226 and 228 isotopes, as well as 1 microcurie of isothiouranium, a cheaper radioactive compound.

Radithor was manufactured from 1918-28 by the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc., of East Orange, New Jersey. The head of the laboratories was listed as Dr. William J. A. Bailey, not a medical doctor. It was advertised as “A Cure for the Living Dead” as well as “Perpetual Sunshine”.

These radium elixirs were marketed similar to the way opiates were commonly advertised with Laudanum an age earlier, and electrical cure-alls during the same time period such as the Prostate Warmer.

The story of socialite Eben Byers’s death from Radithor consumption and the associated radiation poisoning found its way into the New York Times under the title “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off,” which led to the strengthening of the Food and Drug Administration's powers and the demise of most radiation quack cures.




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