The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off.

Eben Byers was a wealthy American socialite,  athlete, and industrialist. He suffered an injury after falling from his berth which kept nagging him greatly. He complained of persistent pain and a doctor suggested that he take Radithor, a  patent medicine manufactured by William J. A. Bailey. Radithor is a “medicine” which is basically radioactive radium, dissolved in water. Bailey claimed it could cure many ailments by stimulating the endocrine (=glandular) system. Eben Byers believed firmly in this stuff and drunk some every day. After Eben Byers drunk 1400 bottles, poor Eben Byers had suffered more than three times the lethal dose of radiation. Enough to make his jaw fall off, get abscesses in his brain, and form holes in his skull.

But what exactly is this radioactivity?

We have all heard of it in this age of nuclear power, nuclear bombs and radiation levels from Fukushima in 2011 or Chernobyl in 1986. What exactly is this radiation?

There are three different types of radiation that’s important in this story, alpha (α), beta (β) and gamma (γ) radiation.

Alpha radiation is in fact a particle and consists of 2 protons and 2 neutrons just like the nucleus of helium. Due to the positively charged protons this radiation is positively charged as neutrons do not carry charge. These particles are coming from an unstable nucleus of a radioactive source that is trying to rearrange its nucleus to become a more stable and thus a non-radioactive element.

Beta radiation consists of electrons, the negative parts of the atoms that are not part of the nucleus.  If an element has a neutron too many, the neutron will turn into a proton and an electron. The latter is very fast moving and gets shot out from the atom. This electron is called the “beta-particle”. A decay like this lowers the amount of neutrons and increases the amount of protons and thereby creating a more stable element. Another form of β radiation with positrons (the electron’s “anti-particle”) is called β+ decay but I will not go into that any deeper.

Gamma radiation consists of high energy photons, packets of electromagnetic radiation, that are being radiated from the nucleus. Basically, gamma radiation is pure energy and doesn’t have mass.  The radiation often happens after beta or alpha radiation because after the rearrangement in the nucleus there is a lot of excess energy. This excess energy is being radiated from the nucleus and the element will transform from an unstable, excited state to a stable and unexcited state.

Why are these radiations so dangerous?

The radiations cause damage because the particles they release collide with proteins, enzymes, and DNA of organisms.  It ionizes atoms (=charging atoms) inside proteins, enzymes, and DNA and the changes that are made because of the particles smashing into our DNA can lead to various illnesses and forms of cancer and other horrible things, which for example “loosens” the jaw.

Can we see this ionization?

This ionization process is visualized  in a Wilson chamber. This is a room filled with a supersaturated water vapor or alcohol. When a charged particle interacts with the mixture it ionizes it. These ions then act as condensation points, around which a mist will form. The three types of radiation show different tracks with distinctive shapes (alpha particles have broad tracks and show evidence of deflection, while tracks of electrons are thinner and straight). By applying an uniform magnetic field across the cloud chamber, positively and negatively charged particles will curve in opposite directions.

But why isn’t everyone living on a diet of liquid food because of this radiation?

Luckily most radiation is easily stopped by other materials. Alpha radiation won’t even make it through six centimeter of air before being brought to a halt. However it is highly poisonous if you would ingest it because it would be irradiating your cells from a very small distance. The electron of beta radiation interacts with matter more strongly and would for example pass through thin bits of tissue, but won’t pass through aluminum foil. Gamma radiation is a lot more penetrating, even going through vast blocks of concrete.  X-ray is also a form of gamma radiation, but the difference is that X-ray is man-made, and gamma radiation is naturally occurring.

In summary, there are three types of radiation α- (particles), β- (charges), γ- (radiation) which are all dangerous. Alpha being made helium ions and highly ionizing at close range. Beta being made from electrons being shot out because of too many neutrons, and relatively being weak at ionizing. And gamma being made of the surplus energy and ionizing even from outside of the body, and thus the most “poisonous”. Radioactivity is produced during the transition of an unstable atom to a stable, non-radioactive atom by rearranging it’s protons and neutrons.

Movie of the Wilson Chamber

Wilson cloud chamber – retrieved 11/5/2012


Beta decay  by tdewitt451 on Dec 24, 2011 “” retrieved 11/4/2012.

Picture of radioactive symbol, “Fukushima radioactivity discovered in samples taken in Bennington”. retrieved 11/4/12

Picture of radioactive decay, retrieved 11/4/12

Eben Byers “


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