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Radithor: An Energy Drink for the Rich that was Made up of Radium

by Meenal Bhatia

Radithor: An Energy Drink for the Rich that was Made up of Radium

May 14, 2021

Do you find yourself reaching out for a Red Bull or some energy drink when you feel all drained out? Well you'd be surprised to know that the concept of energy drinks isn't new and while these days we rely on caffeine and taurine for a kick, there was a time when these drinks were made of actual energy (read poison) One of these drinks was RadiThor which was made up of Radium.

During the early decades of the 20th century, right after its discovery, radiation was hot in more ways than one. Out of all the radioactive elements discovered, it was radium that became the focus of both public fascination and entrepreneurial zeal. In 1898, when the husband-wife duo, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium, they also discovered the dangers attached to it.

But there were many others, who refused to overlook these dangers. All kinds of companies — from cosmetics and hair to pharmaceuticals and drinks, to sports equipment and braces— saw radium as an opportunity for a profitable business. However, luckily for the consumers, the majority of companies that advertised radium in their products were lying.

But there were a few that actually went ahead and kept their promise of producing radium-laced products. However, these products were expensive (radium wasn’t cheap), so few could afford them — a fact that probably helped keep radium from becoming a public health crisis.

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The Invention of RadiThor

Among the genuine products that contained Radium was RadiThor; an energy drink with a high concentration of radium dissolved in water. RadiThor was invented by William Bailey who was a Harvard dropout. He lied about his credentials and claimed to be a doctor of medicine. He quickly became rich by selling RadiThor. Along with many other benefits, Bailey claimed that RadiThor increased energy, helped numb pain, kept one youthful, cured impotence and healed several ailments. As an incentive, Bailey offered physicians a 1/6 rebate for every dose of RadiThor they prescribed. 

It was sold from 1918 until 1928 in small, one-ounce (30ml) bottles costing about $1 each (approximately $14 in 2021 dollars). One of the Unique Selling Points of RadiThor was the claim that it could cure impotence. Mind you, this was a time when Viagra hadn’t been discovered and several men fell prey to the claim.  

The Most Famous Customer

History remembers Eben Byers, a wealthy Pittsburgh native, athlete and a ‘ladies man,’ as the most famous customer of RadiThor (and not for a good reason) One night, Byers injured his arm that led to chronic pain which started affecting his sports career and energy level. His physician prescribed him RadiThor.

Byers was so convinced that the drink worked, that even after his arm healed he didn’t stop consuming it. Instead, he upped his dosage to two bottles a day.  For over three years, Byers kept up with his habit. Inevitably, his body began decaying from the inside out. 

He developed holes in his skull, lost most of his jaw and was diagnosed with a variety of other bone-related illnesses. According to reports, over the time he had consumed at least enough radium to kill three people. Even as his body began to shut down, he still believed that drink wasn’t the cause and continued drinking it.

Eventually, he died a gruesome death on March 31, 1932. 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.

The Wake-up Call

Radium has catastrophic long-term health consequences. Upon ingestion, radium gets incorporated into the bones and, because its radiation energy is deposited in bone tissue, it opens holes into the bones.

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.

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