An Energy Drink That Was Actually Radioactive
Image Credit: RadiThor was marketed as an "energy drink", described as a "cue for the living dead" and "perpetual sunshine".

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IN today’s world, the words “A Cure For the Living Dead” might evoke the image of some kind of solution for a zombie apocalypse (or threat thereof). But in the early 20th century, these very words were used to describe the contents of a small glass vial, about 3 inches tall, with a cork stopper, bearing a label neatly printed with its name: RadiThor. 

RadiThor had other non-zombie solution evoking names too: “Perpetual Sunshine” was one. Its fans referred to it as an elixir. It was an energy drink before energy drinks were a thing. As an advertisement for it promised: “Just a tiny bottle of apparently lifeless, tasteless and colourless water is all that the eye can see or the tongue can detect. Yet in this bottle there reposes the greatest therapeutic force known to mankind — radioactivity.” Yes, it was radioactive.

RadiThor, the precursor to the modern-day energy drink, was radium contained in distilled water and marketed as a cure-all for everything from general lassitude to a libidinal slump. By the time it was pulled off the market, it had led to at least one very gruesome death, and poisoned who knows how many others. 


In 1927, American industrialist Eben Byers had a fall in a railway coach and injured his arm. Now a more sedate 47, Byers had been an amateur golfing champion in his younger days — and also had a reputation as a ladies’ man. To help his arm heal, Byers’ physician suggested a new miracle elixir that had been gaining publicity over the past couple of years. It was a small vial of radium water; Byers was sure to feel its beneficial effects immediately. On his advice, Byers began taking RadiThor.

RadiThor was the “brainchild” of “Dr” William J Bailey — a Harvard drop-out who had no medical qualifications. Marie and Pierre Curie had discovered radium in 1898 (Byers would have been 18 at the time). By 1913, studies describing the hazards it posed to humans were beginning to do the rounds of academia. Marie Curie had made a conscious decision not to patent radium or its medical applications; in 1921, she was invited to the US to receive a gift of a gram of radium to carry on her experiments. She toured a radium refining plant and then met with the US President Warren G Harding for the presentation ceremony. 

Her tour was certainly followed with avid interest, and perhaps among those who made note of it was William J Bailey. By 1922, he was dabbing in radium “products” of various kinds. By 1925, he had set up Bailey Radium Laboratories, which manufactured RadiThor. A bottle sold for $1, about $15 in today’s money. By the time Bailey’s RadiThor retailing ceased, he had made a profit of over 400 percent. 


When Eben Byers first began taking RadiThor in 1927, he felt great. He was more energetic, he was certainly more virile; Byers was so impressed that he began recommending RadiThor to all his friends — even dosing his horses with it. As per some accounts, he was taking as many as three bottles a day, and even when his arm had healed, he continued taking the radium water. He only stopped in 1930, when his teeth began to fall out. 

The damage was already done. When the Federal Trade Commission, which had taken note of the misrepresentation of RadiThor as a cure-all by Bailey, visited Byers to record his testimony in 1931, they found a man whose jaw was all but non-existent, with holes burning through his skull. It was as though, one report says, Byers was “decaying from the inside”. 

The FTC shot Bailey a cease and desist order, and the  Radium Laboratories had halted operations by 1932. Byers died that year, and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. Bailey lived till 1949, a 70-something whose last-peddled miracle “cure” was considerably less radioactive seaweed.