In 1972, Jean Heller was a young investigative journalist with the Associated Press. While covering the U.S. presidential election, a Washington bureau supervisor tipped her off about a man named Peter Buxtun, who was working with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), the government agency responsible for public health in the country.
Buxtun had become disillusioned that nothing had been done to stop a USPHS research operation in Macon County, Ala.
Heller found out that in 1932, the USPHS, Alabama State Board of Health, the Macon County Health Unit and the Tuskegee Institute created a multi-prong effort called the “Study of Untreated Syphillis in the Male Negro.” For decades, researchers had coerced some 600 Black men, 25 years or older, to take part in this study, but only 399 of those men came into the study with syphilis. The others were unknowingly injected with the disease. In the end, all of the men were deliberately denied accessible treatment and left to suffer with numerous health issues and untimely deaths.
When her story, “Black Men Untreated in Tuskegee Syphilis Study” broke on July 25, 1972, it set off a chain reaction in the federal government that exposed the overt, extreme racism in American medicine including human experimentation on Black bodies and unethical scientific and medical practices on Black people.
The recommendations of an ad hoc panel resulted in the study finally being shut down in October 1972. By 1974, survivors of the experiment were awarded $10 million in a class action lawsuit. The experiment where researchers knowingly gave these Black men syphilis and waited for them to die from it, is just one example of a long history of mistrust between African Americans and the American medical community that still lingers on to this day.
Heller, now 79 and living in North Carolina, is a mystery book writer. She spoke to BET.com in a phone interview about reporting on this groundbreaking story, which has become so central to our understanding of medical apartheid and the attempts to cover it all up.
BET.com: How did you come across the details behind this story?
Jean Heller: Peter Buxtun was a young man, as I recall it, in San Francisco…AP had a reporter in San Francisco named Edie Lederer who was a friend of mine. Peter had heard about some study going on that involved not treating people with syphilis for some reason. So he went to his supervisor in Atlanta and asked about it and said ‘is there anything to this?’ The fellow wrote back and said: ‘This isn’t your job, just do your job. Just don’t worry about this.’
So he gave those letters to Edie, who was on her way to London, I was in Miami Beach covering the (Sen. George) McGovern nominating convention. She changed her flight so that she could come through Miami. She jumped in a cab and came to the AP workspace there and said, ‘I don’t know what this is about, I don’t know what to do about it, I’m not an investigative reporter but you are so here. Do with this what you may.’
I didn’t have much time during the convention to give it much thought, but on the flight back to Washington after the convention, I was sitting next to Ray Stevens, who was the supervisor of the special assignment team and I said read these and tell me what you think. He said the supervisor’s not denying it. He’s taking cognizance of it by basically telling this college kid to just forget about it and leave it alone.
Ray said, ‘When we get back to Washington, drop everything you’ve got on your plate and just focus on this.’ So, that’s what I did and that’s how I uncovered the truth about the study.
The Tuskegee Experiment: A Lived Experience
From 1932 to 1972, Black men in rural Alabama were denied treatment for syphilis by government doctors. These images from the National Archives tell their story, 50 years later.
BET.com: A month before your story was published, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the first Watergate story. Vietnam was winding down, and of course, the nation had gone through a decade of racial strife, if not more. At the time, was America questioning itself on a lot of things?
Jean Heller: There were a lot of distractions. I mean, Bobby Kennedy had been killed in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. the same year. Those were impacts that were lasting on this country. There was the Civil Rights Movement, which I hesitate to call a distraction, it was one of the most important things that has ever happened to us.
BET.com: Do you think the country at the time had the appetite to know about this, or was it too much?
Jean Heller: It was not a story that was going to be ignored. And whether the country was ready for it or not, I didn’t care. This story had to be told. I mean, how do you get ready to accept such cruelty? Disregard for human life? I don’t think there’s any way to get ready for it. I don’t think there’s any point in which it would have been better for the country to hear about it and my biggest concern was getting the damn thing stopped, and exposing the people who had been part of this.
BET.com: You did expose them but it seems like there was no accountability for the people who had been involved in something that could be considered a criminal act. Caspar Weinberger was the Secretary of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) at the time but I don’t see any record where he said someone needs to pay for this.
Jean Heller: No, I don’t think he did. The day the story broke…the people who worked at the HEW building in Washington, D.C. actually rioted and went and sat in at the secretary’s office demanding that it be stopped and that there be some accountability. The secretary put an immediate stop to it and the pathologist who had been doing the autopsies as the subjects died, he immediately quit. Teddy Kennedy ordered a Senate investigative hearing on how this ever happened.
As far as I know, except for the public humiliation, the doctors never suffered the consequences. For one thing, when we do human experimentation, there is such a thing called the right to know. It wasn't very prevalent back then, but now it is.
BET.com: In obtaining these records, I got hold of an audio interview of a nurse who was central in all of this, who talked specifically about her role in the study. Eunice Rivers didn’t defend it, but she seemed to say that these men were getting free health care and things they never would have had without being a part of the study. What would your response to her be?
Jean Heller: I would tell her she was turning a blind eye to it. When the study started in 1932, there were no real good treatments for syphilis. Not too long after that, someone invented penicillin and it became a very quick, very simple, relatively painless way to fight this kind of thing. And yet, the Tuskegee Study victims were never offered that option. The doctors basically didn’t want them to get well. They wanted them to die so that their bodies could be autopsied to determine if syphilis affects Black bodies differently than it does white bodies.
Now, say what you will, but this was not in these men’s best interests. More than 100 of them died as a direct result of untreated syphilis and one thing we don’t know is how many of their wives or girlfriends or unborn children became infected. There was no basic need for this science if that’s what it was.
The irony of this is that in 1932, Hitler was coming to power in Germany and during the course of this study, the United States at the same time it was condoning the syphilis study was trying Nazis for unspeakable human experimentation. I just find that the cruelest kind of irony and hypocrisy. And Nurse Rivers, I think she had blinders on because there was one point during the study where a man found out what he had and went to Montgomery to be treated. Someone who was in charge of the study went to Montgomery and took him out of the clinic and told the clinicians if you ever treat anyone from Tuskegee again, we’ll make sure you lose all your federal funding.
This was just unreasonable suffering and if she couldn’t see it living there in the midst of all these men, then she just wasn’t looking.
Click here to read the next part of BET.com’s “The Tuskegee Experiment 50 Years Later,” special report, with the continuation of our exclusive interview with Jean Heller. Plus a 1977 audio interview with Nurse Eunice Rivers and an interview with the granddaughter of one of the Tuskegee victims.
*This interview is edited for length and clarity.