She Was Handed an Envelope, Broke a Staggering Story

How an AP reporter broke the Tuskegee syphilis story
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 31, 2022 4:50 PM CDT
She Was Handed an Envelope, Broke a Staggering Story
A copy of former Associated Press investigative reporter Jean Heller's story printed on the front page of The New York Times hangs on a wall of her home in Southport, N.C., on Saturday, July 9, 2022.   (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

(Newser) – Jean Heller was toiling away on the floor of the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami when an AP colleague from the opposite end of the country handed her a thin manila envelope. "I'm not an investigative reporter," Edith Lederer told the 29-year-old Heller. "But I think there might be something here." Inside were documents telling a tale that, even today, staggers the imagination: For four decades, the US government had denied hundreds of poor, Black men treatment for syphilis so researchers could study its ravages on the human body. Thanks to Heller, the world would soon come to know of the "Tuskegee Study." Fifty years on, the AP recounts the story of how the study came to light.

Lederer was working at the AP bureau in San Francisco when she met Peter Buxtun, who had taken a job at the local Public Health Service office in 1965. He was tasked with tracking venereal disease cases in the Bay Area. In 1966, Buxtun had overheard colleagues talking about a syphilis study going on in Alabama. He called what is now the CDC, requested any related documents, and received 10 reports. He knew immediately that the study was unethical, he said, and sent reports to his superiors telling them so, twice. The reply was essentially: Tend to your own work and forget about Tuskegee. He eventually left the agency, but he couldn’t leave Tuskegee. So, Buxtun turned to his journalist friend, who demurred.

"I knew that I could not do this," Lederer said during a recent interview. "AP, in 1972, was not going to put a young reporter from San Francisco on a plane to Tuskegee, Alabama, to go and do an investigative story." But she told Buxtun she knew someone who could. At the time, Heller was the only woman on the AP’s fledgling Special Assignment Team; Lederer had worked with her at AP's New York headquarters. Heller recalled putting the leaked documents in her briefcase after getting them from Lederer. She didn’t get around to reading them until the flight home. Seated next to her was Ray Stephens, head of the investigative team. She showed him the documents. Heller recalls Stephens saying: "When we get back to Washington, I want you to drop everything else you’re doing and focus on this." (Read the full story for much more.)

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