The Fate of the 1906 US Amateur Champion

Eben Byers in the 1920s.

The Fate of the 1906 US Amateur Champion

Warning: Graphic Photos Below

Pittsburgh Press Headlines After Byers won the US Amateur

Eben Byers led a charmed life. Until he didn’t.

Born into wealth in the Gilded Age, Byers was a Yale graduate who would eventually inherit his father’s business, the Girard Iron Company.

Period newspapers described him as a “capitalist and a sportsman.”

An accomplished golfer, Byers won the US Amateur in 1906. He had been runner up in 1902 and 1903.

Byers US Amateur win came at Englewood Golf Club. He defeated George S. Lyon, a Canadian who had won the Olympic Gold medal for golf in 1904.

Byers was one down after the morning session, but came back to win three up in the afternoon.

In the 1906 Western Golf Association tournament, he was one of just two players accorded a scratch handicap.

Byers continued to play competitive golf through the 1920s.

A bottle of Radithor. Photo credit: Sam Larussa.

In 1926, Byers fell in a railroad train while on his way to New York from New Haven, injuring his arm. To treat the injury, he was advised to drink Radithor, a patent medicine. Byers drank the concoction every day for years.

Radithor was the invention of William Bailey, a Harvard dropout who advertised it as “A Cure For the Living Dead” and “Perpetual Sunshine.”

In all, Bailey claimed Radithor would cure more than 150 different ailments.

It consisted of radium dissolved in water.

Strange as it may seem today, radium was thought by many at the time to be beneficial.

An ad from the 1927 Idaho Statesman reads:

If you are sick and want to Get Well and Keep Well, write for literature that tells how and why this almost unknown and wonderful new element brings relief to so many suffers from Constipation, Rheumatism, Sciatica, Gout, Neuritis, Neuralgia, Nervous Prostration, High Blood Pressure and diseases of the Stomach, Heart, Lungs, Liver Kidneys and other ailments.

Byers began with just a couple of spoonsful of the tonic, but ended up consuming two or three of the two ounce bottles every day. It was estimated in a later Federal Trade Commission hearing that Byers had consumed 1,400 bottles of Radithor.

By 1930, Byers began to lose weight and suffering pain in his jaw. When his teeth began to fall out, Byers sought help.

X-Rays of Byers’ diseased jaw were sent to New York physician Dr. Steiner, who recognized the symptoms from the case of the “Radium Girls” — factory workers in WWI who developed radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with luminous paint.

Dr. Frederick B. Flinn at Columbia determined that there were 36 micrograms of radium in his body. Radium, as it turns out, accumulates in the bones, destroying surrounding marrow and tissue. Byers had consumed three times the lethal dose.

Attempts were made to rid Byers’ body of the radium, but he soon would lose his entire jaw and his life.

Byers in 1931.

In 1931, Byers was one of five witnesses for the Federal Trade Commission who testified against the Bailey Laboratories. The FTC barred the firm from further use of advertising statements, but did not ban the sale of the product. Nonetheless, it was pulled from the market.

Following Byers death in early 1932, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against the use of radioactive drugs.

Byers’ case gained attention because of his well-known position. How many others died as a result of consuming Radithor — and other radium based drugs — is unknown. Some 400,000 bottles of Radithor were sold before it was taken off the market.

Byers’ body was buried in a lead lined coffin in Pittsburgh. When it was exhumed for study in 1965, it was still highly radioactive.

A note: this story was brought to my attention by a good friend who works in the nuclear industry. He asked if I had heard the tale, and I had not. So here it is.

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