The Radium Worked Fine Until His Bum Lit Up Like A Glow Worm (2024)

On March 30, 1932, the wealthy chairman of a Pittsburgh steel company, Eben Byers, was pronounced dead. The passing of this high-profile socialite and alleged “ladies man,” sent federal agencies and medical authorities into a bit of a panic. Radioactive materials, it turned out, were not things one should eat for lunch.

Byers had bought into the latest in “homeopathic” trends, radium-infused products. Radium is actually present in small quantities in almost all plants, animals, rock, soil and even water. But it was its presence in natural hot springs, considered by many to have curative properties, that kick-started the element into celebrity. In an effort to cure a golf injury, Byers adopted the religious habit of downing several bottles a day of the popular and delicious Radithor. Radiothor was an early form of smart water, but instead of your day’s worth of vitamins, the elixir delivered “certified radioactive water.” “New Substance, Declared to be Cheap and Efficacious in Many Diseases, Shown to Doctors,” read a 1909 New York Times headline on the product.

Radium was cool and everybody was doing it. French women were putting it on their faces in creams. Watches and military instruments used it for its glow-in-the-dark effect. A European company was plunking it in their bread, and another was using it to spruce up their chocolate. Radium toothpaste graced supermarket shelves promising to “load cells with new life.” Even James John “Jimmy” Walker, New York’s incumbent mayor, was home-brewing his own radium water.

And that’s not the only place people were putting radium. Why ingest it, when you could simply apply it directly to your sexual organs? The Scrotal Radiendocrinator, when placed under the scrotum while sleeping, pledged to revive sexual virility. But why put it on your scrotum, when you could just shove it up your bum? Vita Radium Suppositories were fantastic “for restoring sex power,” and “also splendid for piles and rectal sores.” “Try them,” said the ad featuring a radiating obelisk resembling the Washington monument, “…and see what good results you get!”

Despite the guarantees of the products, inserting radium into one’s endpoints did not turn out to be a prudent choice. “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off,” wrote the Wall Street Journal of Byers death. Byers autopsy revealed “…necrosis in both jaws, anemia, and brain abscess, all symptomatic of radium poisoning,” said the New York Times. The Federal Trade Commission had already begun its assessment of “so-called ‘radium-cures,’” and the City Health Department sent five of its own to sniff out the problem.

Curiously, while drinking large quantities of radium was making people’s “jaw fall off,” the radium creams and topical ointments may not have had the same adverse effect. So why did Byers die while the men aspiring for radioactive scrotums survived? The answer is found at radium’s atomic level. There are 118 known elements, 80 of which are stable. The atoms of these elements live comfortable and balanced lives with little regard for keeping up with the Joneses. The remaining 38 are unstable. Like teenagers, they are insecure, tumultuous, and always in the midst of an identity crises. Scientists call them radioactive.

The particles—protons and neutrons—in the nucleus of each atom, act like hormones. We’re stable when we have balanced hormones. Similarly, elements are stable when they have balanced numbers of protons and neutrons, and usually less of them. Unstable (or radioactive) elements tend to have unbalanced and abundant nuclear particles, like teenagers with raging hormones. The goal for a radioactive element is to get stable, and it does this by jettisoning some of those particles. Radium, for example, wants to turn into its neighbor, radon, and to do so it ejects two protons and two neutrons—a bundle of particles collectively called an alpha particle. Because radon is also unstable, it wants to turn into its neighbor polonium, so it expels another alpha from its nucleus. Polonium is also unstable and will continue to spew more particles—thereby transforming into different elements. This happens eight more times until the exhausted teenager is done with its tantrum and has matured into stable lead.

The radium in Byers body never would have made it to lead, but it did have quite an alpha-spewing extravaganza, leaving Byers body in the shape of a high school house party the morning after. The early 1900’s “Radium Girls,” who painted the luminescent parts of watches with radium and tended to lick their paint brushes to give them a fine point, met a similar fate. It was this destructive quality of alpha that earned it a spot in early cancer treatments-implanting bits of the element in tumors.

However, while alpha particles may be rowdy as teenagers, they are the elephants of radioactive particles. Their large and sluggish nature means they cannot travel very far and cannot even penetrate a piece of paper. (Other particles given off by radioactive elements—the electrons known as beta radiation and high-energy electromagnetic gamma rays— are blocked by tinfoil and lead respectively). Lucky for the ladies of Tho-Radia Face Creme and the men of the Scrotal Radiendocrinator, the added thickness of their skin may have acted as a barrier against radium’s alpha particles.

Radioactive suppositories may have lost their place on the market, but there are still many useful radioactive materials today. The “Gamma Knife,” for example, can target cancer tumors. Certain types of uranium are the starting material for power generation. Carbon’s presence in all living things helps scientists date archaeological sites by the timing of the carbon’s radioactive decay. And harmless “radiotracers,” can track chemical movements inside the body. The moral of the story? Feel free to use radioactive materials in your atomic bombs and face cream, just please keep them out of your orifices.

The Radium Worked Fine Until His Bum Lit Up Like A Glow Worm (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Amb. Frankie Simonis

Last Updated:

Views: 6332

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (56 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Amb. Frankie Simonis

Birthday: 1998-02-19

Address: 64841 Delmar Isle, North Wiley, OR 74073

Phone: +17844167847676

Job: Forward IT Agent

Hobby: LARPing, Kitesurfing, Sewing, Digital arts, Sand art, Gardening, Dance

Introduction: My name is Amb. Frankie Simonis, I am a hilarious, enchanting, energetic, cooperative, innocent, cute, joyous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.