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The Strange Story of Eben Byers, The Man That Drank Radium Until His Jaw Fell Off

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.

Black and white eben byers dressed in smart clothes
Eben Byers in 1903.

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.

Eben Byers playing golf in the 1920s.

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.

Disfigured man without a jaw
Eben Byers after radium use

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.


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