The Associated Press reporter who broke the Tuskeegee syphilis experiment story sat down with the outlet 50 years later to recall how she revealed the disturbing study to the world.
Jean Heller was 29 years old and covering the 1972 Democratic National Convention at the Miami Beach Convention Center when an AP colleague handed her a manilla envelope because she wasn’t an investigative reporter.
“I’m not an investigative reporter,” Edith Lederer told Heller. “But I think there might be something here.”
After reviewing the contents inside the envelope, Heller was taken aback by findings revealing the US government’s four-decade study that denied hundreds of poor Black men syphilis treatment so researchers could study its effect on the human body.
“I thought, ‘It couldn’t be,’” Heller recalled. “The ghastliness of this.”
Dubbed “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” once unearthed, the study would become one of the biggest medical scandals in history that fueled ongoing mistrust of the government and the healthcare system within Black communities.
With a lack of technology and resources, Heller did the time-consuming groundwork and contacted the government, medical professionals, and anyone with information related to the study the government confirmed existed but refused to speak on.
After visiting the DC public library, Heller discovered an obscure medical journal that chronicled the study’s “progress.”
“Every couple of years, they would write something about it,” she says. “Mostly, it was about the findings — none of the morality was ever questioned.”
While Heller knew she had a breaking story on her hands, the disturbing reality surrounding the story took away the joy of a job well done.
“I knew that people had died, and I was about to tell the world who they were and what they had,” she said. “And finding any joy in that … would have been unseemly.”
The story ran on Tuesday, July 25, 1972, on the front page of the now-defunct Washington Star and in the New York Times. It revealed how starting in 1932, the Public Health Service — working with the famed Tuskegee Institute — began recruiting Black men from Macon County, Alabama, where they had some of the highest syphilis numbers.
Researchers told the participants they were being treated for “bad blood,” but their treatment at the time consisted primarily of doses of arsenic and mercury, known to be extremely toxic. The Tuskegee Study began 10 years before penicillin was found to be a cure for syphilis and 15 years before the drug became widely available, the NY Times reported in 1972.
But even after penicillin became widely available, the study’s participants were never offered the medicine they needed to cure their syphilis. Now, at age 79, Heller is still haunted by her breaking story and its effects on the victims and the nation.
“As much injustice as there was for Black Americans back in 1932, when the study began, I could not BELIEVE that an agency of the federal government, as much of a mistake as it was initially, could let this continue for 40 years,” Heller said. “It just made me furious.”