Eben Byers
Byers in 1906
Personal information
Full nameEbenezer McBurney Byers
Born(1880-04-12)April 12, 1880
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
DiedMarch 31, 1932(1932-03-31) (aged 51)
Manhattan, New York
Sporting nationality United States
Best results in major championships
(wins: 1)
PGA ChampionshipDNP
U.S. OpenCUT: 1908
The Open ChampionshipDNP
U.S. AmateurWon: 1906
British AmateurT17: 1904

Ebenezer McBurney Byers (April 12, 1880 – March 31, 1932) was an American socialite, sportsman, and industrialist. He won the 1906 U.S. Amateur in golf. He died from multiple radiation-induced cancers after consuming Radithor, a patent medicine made from radium dissolved in water.


Eben Byers in the 1920s

The son of industrialist Alexander Byers, Eben Byers was educated at St. Paul's School and Yale College.[1] He earned a reputation as a sportsman and played on the Yale Bulldogs golf team. Byers was the U.S. Amateur golf champion of 1905,[2] after finishing runner-up in 1902 and 1903.[3][4] Byers eventually became the chairman of the Girard Iron Company, which had been created by his father.[1]

In 1927, Byers injured his arm falling from a railway sleeping berth. For the persistent pain, a doctor suggested he take Radithor, a patent medicine manufactured by William J. A. Bailey.[5] Bailey was a Harvard University dropout who falsely claimed to be a doctor of medicine and had become rich from the sale of Radithor, a solution of radium in water which he claimed stimulated the endocrine system. He offered physicians a 1/6 kickback on each dose prescribed.[6]

Byers began taking several doses of Radithor per day, believing it gave him a "toned-up feeling", but stopped in October 1930 (after taking some 1400 doses) when that effect faded. He lost weight and had headaches, and his teeth began to fall out. In 1931, the Federal Trade Commission asked him to testify about his experience, but he was too sick to travel so the commission sent a lawyer to take his statement at his home; the lawyer reported that Byers's "whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth and most of his lower jaw had been removed" and that "All the remaining bone tissue of his body was disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull."[7]

His death on March 31, 1932, was attributed to "radiation poisoning" using the terminology of the time, but it was due to cancers, not acute radiation syndrome.[5][8] Radium is known to emit alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. While alpha radiation has low penetrating ability and typically does not present a danger, ingestion of radium in the form of Radithor allowed accumulation in the bones. Without shielding provided by the skin, the highly-ionizing alpha radiation was able to cause localized cell damage on an extreme level, and this is ultimately what led to Byers' cancer and death.[9] He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a lead-lined coffin.[6]


Byers's death received much publicity and it heightened awareness of the dangers of radioactive "cures".[8]

The Federal Trade Commission issued an order against Bailey's business 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".[10] He later founded the "Radium Institute" in New York and marketed a radioactive belt-clip, a radioactive paperweight, and a mechanism which purported to make water radioactive.[11]

After exhuming Byers's body in 1965, MIT physicist Robley Evans estimated Byers' total radium intake as about 1000 μCi (37 MBq), with about half from Ra-226 and the other half from the highly-radioactive mesothorium (Ra-228).[12][failed verification] Dr. Evans also studied radium dial painters and was able to study one whose intake was similar to, but somewhat higher than Byers'.

Major championships

Amateur wins

Year Championship Winning score Runner-up
1906 U.S. Amateur 2 up Canada George Lyon

Results timeline

Tournament 1900 1901 1902 1903 1904 1905 1906 1907 1908 1909
U.S. Open CUT
U.S. Amateur R16 R16 2 2 R16 QF 1 SF QF
The Amateur Championship R32 R128
Tournament 1910 1911 1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919
U.S. Amateur R32 R32 R32 R16 R16 R32 R32 NT NT DNQ
Tournament 1920 1921 1922 1923 1924 1925 1926
U.S. Amateur DNQ DNQ

Note: Byers died before the founding of the Masters Tournament, and never played in The Open Championship. As an amateur, he could not play in the PGA Championship.

  Top 10
  Did not play

NT = No tournament
DNQ = Did not qualify for match play portion
R128, R64, R32, R16, QF, SF = Round in which player lost in match play

Source for U.S. Amateur: USGA Championship Database

Source for 1904 British Amateur: Golf, July 1904, pg. 6.

Source for 1907 British Amateur: The Glasgow Herald, May 29, 1907, pg. 12.

See also


  1. ^ a b Leonard, John William (1922). Who's Who in Finance and Banking. Who's Who in Finance Inc. p. 110.
  2. ^ "The Pittsburgh Press 15 Jul 1906, page Page 18". Newspapers.com. Retrieved August 15, 2023.
  3. ^ "Travis Out Of The Race". New York Tribune. July 18, 1902. p. 5. Retrieved May 20, 2015.
  4. ^ Wade, Don; McCord, Gary (September 1994). And Then Arnie Told Chi Chi... McGraw-Hill Professional. pp. 33–4. ISBN 0-8092-3549-8.
  5. ^ a b "Radium Drinks". Time. April 11, 1932. Archived from the original on November 13, 2007. Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  6. ^ a b "Eben M. Byers: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Amateur Golf, Modern Medicine and the FDA" (PDF). Allegheny Cemetery Heritage. Fall 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 13, 2016. Retrieved November 21, 2009.
  7. ^ Winslow, Ron (August 1, 1990). "The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off" (PDF). Wall Street Journal. p. A1. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 16, 2017.
  8. ^ a b "Death Stirs Action on Radium 'Cures'. Trade Commission Speeds Its Inquiry. Health Department Checks Drug Wholesalers. Autopsy Shows Symptoms. Maker of "Radithor" Denies It Killed Byers, as Does Victim's Physician in Pittsburgh. Walker Uses Apparatus. Friends Alarmed to Find Mayor Has Been Drinking Radium-Charged Water for Last Six Months". The New York Times. April 2, 1932. Retrieved October 1, 2011. Federal and local agencies, as well as medical authorities in various parts of the country, were stirred to action yesterday as a result of the death of Eben M. Byers, wealthy Pittsburgh steel manufacturer and sportsman, who died here Wednesday at the Doctors' Hospital from causes attributed to radium poisoning resulting from the drinking of water containing radium in solution. ...
  9. ^ "Radium". Health Risks of Radon and Other Internally Deposited Alpha-Emitters: Beir IV. National Academics Press. March 8, 1988. Retrieved February 18, 2024. ((cite book)): |website= ignored (help)
  10. ^ "Radithor (ca. 1925-1928)". ORAU. December 19, 1931. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  11. ^ Harvie, David I. (2005). Deadly Sunshine: The History and Fatal Legacy of Radium (1 ed.). Tempus Publishing Limited. pp. 160–161. ISBN 0-7524-3395-4.
  12. ^ Evans, Robley D. (September 1981). "Inception of Standards for Internal Emitters, Radon and Radium". Health Physics. 41 (3): 437–448. doi:10.1097/00004032-198012000-00028. PMID 7026502. S2CID 35163866.

Further reading