Knee/Wittman Outstanding Achievement

Peter Buxtun, JD (1937-2024)

Peter BuxtunPeter Buxtun, JD, was a former employee of the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) who became known as the whistleblower responsible for ending the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, also known as the “USPHS study of untreated syphilis in the negro male at Tuskegee Macon County, AL 1932-1972.” Buxtun’s life experiences led him to identify the study as morally indefensible and to seek justice for the male victims.

After earning a BA at the University of Oregon, Buxtun served in the U.S. Army as a Psychiatric Social Worker. Later, as a 27-year-old epidemiologist in San Francisco, he was hired by the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in December 1965 as a venereal disease (VD) investigator to interview patients with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In the course of his duties, he learned about the Tuskegee experiment from co-workers.

In November 1966, he filed an official protest on ethical grounds with the USPHS Division of Venereal Diseases. The men in the experiment were vulnerable populations of poor farmers who were deceived about the offerings of free medical care and other benefits for their participation. Buxtun’s protest was rejected on the grounds that the experiment was not yet complete. He filed another protest in November 1968, seven months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., pointing out the political volatility of the study. Again, his concerns were ruled irrelevant.

In 1972, Buxtun leaked information on the Tuskegee experiment to Jean Heller of the Associated Press. Heller's story exposing the experiment was published on July 25, 1972; it became front-page news in The New York Times the following day. Senator Edward Kennedy called Congressional hearings, at which Buxtun and officials from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare testified. The experiment was terminated shortly afterwards.

In May 1999, Buxtun attended the launch of a memorial center and public exhibit dedicated to the history of the Tuskegee Experiment. Buxtun’s charges led to new laws governing human research and governing medical ethics committees with non-physician members.

In 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee Experiment: “The United States government did something that was… profoundly, morally wrong… clearly racist.”

The Tuskegee men, their partners, and their children/descents still receive payments of restitution from the CDC today for the shameful project’s lifelong effects on their families. Buxtun's efforts led to the creation of the Belmont Report, which established new laws governing human research, as well as Medical Ethics Committees with non-physician members. These measures safeguard against unethical treatment of human subjects, families, groups, and communities. Many textbooks today in social work analyze his study and how it relates to research and healthcare social work practice.

Buxtun came to America as an infant with his family to escape the Nazis in Czechoslovakia in 1939.Born in Prague in 1937, he came from a background that was both Jewish and Czech . A self-described child of the Holocaust, he was born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother. He grew up speaking German and later researched German history and the Nuremburg trials.It was this expertise that led to Buxtun joining the CDC in 1965 as an investigator.

Today we honor Peter Buxtun’s courageous actions to end racial violence in the public health system.