Radithor (ca. 1928)
Prior to being emptied, the bottle pictured at left contained one-half ounce of Radithor—triple distilled water guaranteed to contain at least 1 microcurie each of Ra-226 and Ra-228. The manufacturer of the product, William J. Bailey, offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove the product contained less than the stated amount. No one ever did.
However, another of Bailey's guarantees, that "Radithor is harmless in every respect," proved false. Radithor is one of the few radioactive quack cures that can be unambiguously linked to someone's death.
Donated by Roger Macklis and David Allard.
Size: 2 1/8" high (not including cork)
Exposure rates: ca. 2 uR/hr above background at one foot, ca. 35 uR/hr above background on contact
Price: $1 a bottle
Bailey Radium Laboratories
Bailey Radium Laboratories, the corporation through which William Bailey produced and distributed Radithor, was located at 336 Main Street in East Orange, New Jersey. They seem to have operated from 1925 until 1930 or early 1931 (they were listed in the Orange City Directory from 1926 to 1929). One of their booklets indicated that they also had they had an office at 27 Front Street East in Toronto. My home town.
A Federal Trade Commission order filed against Bailey Radium Laboratories (Inc.) was probably the final nail in the coffin for Radithor. On December 19, 1931 Bailey was ordered to "cease and desist from various representations theretofore made by them as to the therapeutic value of Radithor and from representing that the product Radithor is harmless." Bailey refrained from contesting the charges following the personal testimony of Eben Byers (delivered shortly before his death).
The Radithor Laboratories Company in Los Angeles seems to have been a separate corporate entity that was licensed to sell Radithor. Their address was 802 Spring Arcade Building on Spring/S. Broadway. The references I have for them date from 1927 and 1928.
In his youth Eben Byers had been the U.S. amateur golf champion. But at that point in his life that is of interest to us, he was president of the A.M. Byers Company in Pittsburg, one of the world's largest steel companies. In 1927 he injured his arm on a party train following a Harvard-Yale football game. At the recommendation of a the Pittsburgh physician C.C. Moyar he began drinking Radithor to assist the healing process.
At this point, it might be worth acknowledging a persistent rumor concerning Byers’ reason for drinking Radithor. Always known as a ‘man about town,” he was now approaching fifty, well into middle age. It is reasonable to suspect that his performance wasn’t what it used to be. And we don’t mean at golf.
Beginning in December of 1927, Byers averaged three bottles a day over the following two years. Feeling invigorated and toned up, at least in the beginning, he extolled Radithor from the rooftops. He fed it to his racehorses. He gave cases of it to his business colleagues. And, of course, he made sure that his girlfriends had plenty on hand. While a young man at Yale, he had been known as “Foxy Grandpa” for his suave ways and success with the ladies (Macklis 1993). Thanks to Radithor, Foxy Grandpa had staged a “comeback.”
Alas, the comeback was all too brief. He stopped consuming Radithor in 1930 when his teeth started falling out.
While preparing their case against Bailey, the Federal Trade Commission sent Robert Winn to interview Byers at his oceanfront mansion in Southampton, Long Island. Quoting Winn’s report: “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.”
Byers’ death in 1932 received significant coverage in the national press—a clear alert as to the potential harmful effects of "mild" radium therapy. Even then, many people kept their faith in the healing power of radium. Among these were some members of the medical profession.
"Dr. C.C. Moyar, Pittsburg physician who prescribed "radithor" for Eben Byers, who died Thursday in New York City, denied today that "more than 100 patients" are suffering from radium poisoning. Dr. Moyar said Byers died from a combination of blood diseases which had induced gout. Dr. Moyar said: "The statement of a New York physiotherapist to the effect 100 patients of a Pittsburg physiotherapist were suffering from radium poisoning was an absolute lie. I am the physiotherapist referred to. I never had more than a dozen patients on radium water at any one time. I never had a death among my patients from radium treatment... I have taken as much or more radium water of the same kind Mr. Byers took and I am 51 years old, active and healthy" (UP press release of April 2, 1932).
According to Roger Macklis (1990), author of the definitive accounts of Radithor, Bailey and Byers, the radium for Radithor was purchased from another New Jersey company, American Radium Laboratory. Unfortunately, I can’t find any information about the latter. Perhaps it was associated with the Radio Chemical Corporation of Orange, New Jersey. In any event, as Macklis noted, Radithor made Bailey a wealthy man. Over 400,000 bottles were sold at one dollar each and a profit margin of approximately 400%.
The Federal Trade Commission order filed against Bailey Radium Laboratories (Inc.) was probably the final nail in the coffin for Radithor. On December 19, 1931 Bailey was ordered to "cease and desist from various representations theretofore made by them as to the therapeutic value of Radithor and from representing that the product Radithor is harmless." Bailey refrained from contesting the charges following the personal testimony of Eben Byers (delivered shortly before his death).
Later, Bailey would claim it was the depression, not the FTC, that forced him out of the patent medicine business.
William J. Bailey
Most of the following information is taken from “Radithor and the Era of Mild Radium Therapy” (JAMA 264 (5):614-621, Aug. 1, 1990) and “The Great Radium Scandal” (Scientific American, 94-99, Aug. 1993), both by Roger Macklis.
William John Bailey was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1884. Soon after William's birth, his father passed away and his mother was left to raise her nine children alone. Despite his relative poverty, William managed to be admitted to Harvard. Unfortunately he was forced to drop out after three semesters due to mounting debt. Later in life he would claim to be a Harvard graduate, but it wasn’t true. Even more of a stretch was his claim to have obtained a doctorate from the University of Vienna. But people believed him, and press accounts would inevitably refer to him as Dr. William Bailey. His guilty plea in 1927 to the illegal practice of medicine suggests that he did more than simply call himself a doctor.
Bailey’s business career consisted of a series of start-up companies, none of which managed to operate for more than a few years. Nevertheless, some of these companies were quite profitable.
His first corporate venture was an import-export business in 1906, but his first run-in with federal authorities, in 1912, involved his automotive business, the Carnegie Engineering Corporation. He claimed to be selling a newly designed automobile for a very nice price—approximately $600. He received some 1500 orders, and presumably that many $50 deposits. What got Bailey into trouble was his inadequate production capacity: his “factory” was an abandoned sawmill that contained a single box of tools.
Of course, it is hard for a corporate president to keep up with every aspect of their company’s day-to-day operations. And Bailey was overseeing not one, but two, operations. He was also president and treasurer of the American Hardware and Machinery Export Corporation. Still, he was held accountable. As reported in the May 8, 1915 issue of the New York Times, he was arrested. Found guilty, he was fined and sentenced to 30 days in prison.
When he got back out on the streets, it wasn’t long before he was in trouble again. In 1918, he was fined for fraudulent claims concerning “Las-I-Go for Superb Manhood,” a supposed cure for impotence. But for someone with Bailey’s drive, that was only a temporary setback.
It was in the early 1920s that radium cast its spell on Bailey. Perhaps Marie Curie’s visit to the United States in 1921 had something to do with it. In any event, by 1922 he had a new company, Associated Radium Chemists, Inc. operating at 461 Eighth Avenue in New York. The earliest reference I have seen to the company, or Arium, the company’s signature product, was a newspaper advertisement from November of 1922. Learn about Arium, and some of the other products sold by Associated Radium Chemists.
In 1923 Bailey entered into an agreement with C. Everett Field and John R. Brinkley regarding the combined use of radium and goats’ glands. Nevertheless, I have no information suggesting that Bailey ever employed goats’ glands in any his products. Radium, yes. Goats’ glands, no.
Shortly after founding Associated Radium Chemists, or perhaps at the same time, Bailey (along with Ward Leathers) started American Endocrine Laboratories at 15 West 44th Street. The earliest date I can associate with them is 1923—the copyright date on a company brochure for the Radiendocrinator. The latter was used to radiate endocrine glands (human, not goat) such as the thyroid. Read about the Radiendocrinator.
Another Bailey operation, Radisante Laboratories, Inc. at 366 Fifth Avenue, simply appears to have been different name for American Endocrine Laboratories. In 1925 or 1926, the company changed their name to U.S. Gamma Laboratories.
Without doubt, Bailey’s biggest money making operation was probably Bailey Radium Laboratories located at 336 Main Street in East Orange, N.J. This was where he produced Radithor from 1925 to 1930, or so.
Believe it or not, Bailey had other irons in the fire! He was also president (ca. 1924-1925) of the Thorone Company located at 15 West 44th Street. They specialized in thorium pharmaceutical preparations, the principal one being Thorone. A 1924 advertisement for the latter featured a woman offering advice to her despondant husband. As he stared down at the floor, head in hands, his wife advised:
"John, you simply must try that new INTERNAL SUNSHINE tablet [Thorone]"
The following year, another advertisement, this one featuring a buff and confident shirtless man, claimed:
"Amazing Earth Power Builds Vigorous Man Power"
The early 1930s found Bailey running three different companies that sold radioactive products to the public. Like his defunct Bailey Radium Laboratories, these companies were based in East Orange, New Jersey: Adrenoray Company, Bioray Company and Thoronator Company (40 Clinton Street, Newark). Unfortunately, these businesses were even shorter lived than his previous ones. Their lack of success, according to Bailey, was due to the great depression, not his ongoing troubles with the Federal Trade Commission.
I am not sure when or why Bailey’s lost his faith in radium. Perhaps he never did. Nevertheless, in 1937 he was a partner in Lee Kelpodine Company, Inc. of New York City. Their sole product line consisted of Kelpodine Tablets—compressed pelletized seaweed. Nothing radioactive about them. The company’s claims that the tablets would alleviate 32 specific diseases and other conditions caused Bailey to run afoul of the Food and Drug Administration. As best as I can determine, this seems to have been the last product that Bailey marketed to the general public.
Following the collapse of Bailey’s pelletized seaweed venture, his career was pretty boring. There doesn’t seem to have been anything radioactive or fraudulent about it.
At the end, May 17, 1949, it was bladder cancer that did him in. He was 64 years of age.
- Bureau of Investigation. American Medical Association. Radium as a Patent Medicine. Vol. 98, No. 16:1397-1399.
- Federal Trade Commission. Bailey Radium Laboratories (Inc.), et al. (Docket 1750). Annual Report. 1932.
- Roger Macklis." The Great Radium Scandal" Scientific American. August 1993.