The US government denied syphilis treatment to poor black people: 50 years after the Tuskegee Study

The US Government Denied Syphilis Treatment To Poor Black People: 50 Years After The Tuskegee Study

North Carolina — 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 competition typed behind the partitions that separated the slots from each outlet covering the 1972 Democratic National Convention. “But I think here there may be something.”

The documents contained in the envelope told a story that, even today, defies imagination: For four decades, the government had denied hundreds of poor, black individuals treatment for syphilis so that scientists could study the deterioration What causes this evil in the human body?


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

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

The story of how the study came to light began four years earlier, at a party in San Francisco. Lederer was working for the AP office there in 1968 when he met Peter Buxtun. Three years earlier, Buxtun had worked for the local Public Health Service office, in 1965. He had to track cases of venereal disease in the Bay Area.

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

He knew immediately that the study was unethical and sent reports to his superiors, twice. The response was basically “mind your own business and forget about Tuskegee,” as he recounted it.

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

He spoke with a journalist friend, “Edie”, who was speechless.

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

But he told Buxtun that he knew of someone who could.

At the time, Heller was the only woman on the AP’s Special Assignments Team, unusual in journalism. But she was not exempt from being the target of the sexist expressions of the era. In a 1968 team note in an internal AP publication, she described the team as “ten men and a nice girl.”

A caption to the photo of Heller, who is short in stature, portrayed her as a “little pixie…charming and competent.”

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

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

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

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

Sitting next to him was Ray Stephens, the director of the investigations team. She showed him the documents. Stephens realized that the government was not denying the existence of the study, just refusing to talk about it.

Heller recounts Stephens telling him, “When you get to Washington, I want you to drop everything you’re doing and focus on this.”

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 the study of syphilis in a small medical journal. She then went to the Washington Public Library.

“I asked if they had any kind of document, book, magazine, whatever… you could do a search for words like ‘Tuskegee,’ ‘farmers,’ ‘Public Health Service,’ ‘syphilis,'” Heller said.

They found a little-known medical publication – Heller can’t remember its name – that had been following the “progress” of the study.

Journalists generally celebrate these types of crucial moments in an investigation. But Heller was in no mood to celebrate.

“I knew that people had died 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.”

With the newspaper in his possession, Heller returned to the SSP. And this time they let their guard down.

He says that the start of the note came quickly. “Marv Arrowsmith, 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 this?’ I told him yes. ‘Go ahead then.’”

An AP medical reporter helped with the interviews with the 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 tale.

Starting in 1932, the Public Health Service – in coordination with the famous Tuskegee Institute – began recruiting black people in Macon County, Alabama. They were told that they were going to treat the problems caused by “bad blood,” a term that encompasses a number of ailments, including anemia, fatigue, and syphilis. The treatment at that time basically consisted of doses of arsenic and mercury.

In exchange for their participation, individuals were offered free medical exams, free meals, and insurance for their burials, as long as they authorized the government to perform autopsies.

More than 600 individuals signed up for the program. What they were not told is that a third of them would not receive any treatment, even when penicillin came out in the 1940s.

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

“As much as there was a lot of injustice to black Americans around 1932, when the study started, I couldn’t believe that a government agency, however wrong it was at first, would allow this to go on for 40 years,” Heller said. “It’s something that infuriated me.”

Nearly four months after his dispatch was published, the study was discontinued.



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