Saturday, September 24, 2022

He was 29, reveals Tuskegee Study scandal

SOUTHPORT, NC ( Associated Press) – Jean Heller was working at the Miami Beach Convention Center when an Associated Press colleague from across the country approached her and handed her an envelope.

“I don’t do journalistic investigations,” Edith Lederer told Heller, a 29-year-old reporter, as the contest typed behind the division that separated slots from each outlet covering the 1972 Democratic National Convention. “But I think there is something here that could happen.”

The documents contained in the envelope told a story that, even today, defies fiction: For four decades, the government denied syphilis treatment to hundreds of poor, black individuals so that scientists could study the degradation of this in the human body. What is the cause of evil?

The National Public Health Service called it the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Men.” Soon the world will know it as the Tuskegee Study, one of the biggest medical scandals in history, an atrocity that still fuels distrust of the African-American government and health care system today.

“I thought, ‘It can’t be,'” Heller says, recalling that moment 50 years ago. “It provokes horrors”.


The story of how the study unfolded began four years ago at a party in San Francisco. Lederer was working for the Associated Press office there in 1968 when he met Peter Buxton. Three years earlier, Buxton had worked for the local office of the Public Health Service in 1965. They had to track sexual dysfunction cases in the Bay Area.

In 1966, Buxton overheard colleagues talking about a syphilis study in Alabama. They called the Centers for Communicable Diseases, now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and asked if they had any material they could share. He received an envelope with 10 reports, he said in an article published by American Scholar magazine in 2017.

He knew immediately that the study was unethical and sent the report twice to his superiors. The response was basically “focus your mind and forget about Tuskegee,” he said.

Buxton left that job. But he never forgot about Tuskegee.

He spoke to a journalist friend, “Eddie”, who was speechless.

“I knew I couldn’t handle it,” Lederer said in a recent interview. “The Associated Press would not have put a young journalist from San Francisco on a plane to Tuskegee, Alabama, to investigate the matter in 1972.”

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But he told Buxton that he knew someone who could do that.

At the time, Heller was the only woman on the Associated Press’s special assignment team, unusual in journalism. But she was not exempted from being the target of sexist expressions of that era. In a 1968 team memo in an Associated Press internal publication, the team was described as “ten men and one good girl”.

A caption of Heller’s photo, which is short, portrayed her as a “little pixie…attractive and capable”.

Lederer had met Heller when the two worked at the Associated Press’s New York headquarters at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, where Heller got his start in the radio service.

“I knew she was an excellent journalist,” Lederer said.

During a trip to Florida to visit his parents, Lederer stayed in Miami Beach, where Heller was part of a team covering the Democratic convention in which George McGovern would be nominated for president.

In recent interviews at his North Carolina home, Heller recalled keeping SSP documents in his briefcase. He only read them on his flight back to Washington, where he was working at the time.

Next to him sat the director of the investigation team, Ray Stephens. He showed her the documents. Stephens felt that the government was not denying the existence of the study, just refusing to talk about it.

“When you go to Washington, I want you to drop whatever you’re doing and focus on it,” Heller told Stephens.

The government declined to discuss the study. Heller looked elsewhere and talked to colleagues, universities and medical schools.

One of his sources recalled seeing something about a study of syphilis in a small medical journal. So he went to the Washington Public Library.

“I asked if they had any sort of document, book, magazine, whatever… You can search for words like ‘Tuskegee,’ ‘Farmer,’ ‘Public Health Service,’ ‘syphilis,’ Heller said.

They found a little-known medical publication—Heller doesn’t remember its name—that was following the “progress” of the study.

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Journalists usually celebrate this type of pivotal moment in an investigation. But Heller was in no mood to celebrate.

“I knew people were dead and I was about to tell the world who they were and what they had,” he said. “I didn’t think it was time to rejoice.”

Taking the newspaper in his possession, Heller returned to the SSP. And this time he let down his guards.

He says that the note started early. “Marv Aerosmith, the office manager, came to my desk and I said, ‘Hey, Marv, are you going to post this?'” he recalls. “He read it, looked at me and said, ‘Can you try it?’ I told him yes. ‘Then let it go.'”

An Associated Press medical reporter helped interview with doctors. Within a few weeks, the team felt they had enough material to publish the article.

The dispatch was published on July 25, 1972. It was a hair-raising story.

In 1932, the Public Health Service—in coordination with the famed Tuskegee Institute—began recruiting blacks in Macon County, Alabama. He told them that he was going to cure the problems caused by “bad blood”, a term that covers various diseases including anemia, fatigue, and syphilis. Treatment at the time originally consisted of arsenic and mercury supplements.

In exchange for their participation, individuals were offered free medical examinations, free food and insurance for their funerals, as long as they authorized the government to conduct autopsies.

More than 600 people signed up for the program. They weren’t told that a third of them would get no treatment, even when penicillin came out in the 1940s.

When Heller’s note was published, at least seven of the individuals involved in the study had died as a direct result of the disease and another 154 from heart problems.

“There was so much injustice done to black Americans around 1932, when the study began, I couldn’t believe that a government agency, though it was wrong at first, would let it last 40 years,” Heller said. “It’s something that pissed me off.”

About four months after their remit was published, the study was closed.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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