Many highly regarded institutions have pasts they’d prefer to remain buried, but when the specter of that past passes back into the present it is notable when the institution in question won’t even acknowledge a simple inquiry about whether it even happened.
Such was the case when I began contacting the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans about a book that claimed that the then-Ochsner Clinic and its namesake founder Alton Ochsner, MD, were implicated in a secret project to create a cancer-causing vaccine to assassinate Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.
I had a similar experience in 2003 when I wrote about the “Tainting of the Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award,” and one of the two institutions I had contacted was disingenuous about its relationship with Dr. Rhoads.
And as improbable as it seems, on Saturday, Nov. 10, less than two weeks before the 49th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, I found myself engaged in a 90-minute phone conversation with Judyth Vary Baker, now age 69, who was promoting her book, Me & Lee--How I Came to Know, Love and Lose Lee Harvey Oswald, which discusses her early career as a teenage cancer researcher recruited by Dr. Ochsner to work on the vaccine.
Baker lives abroad for safety reasons, she said, and this was her first trip back to the United States in several years. She was eager to talk, she said, because I was one of the only reporters interested more in her research than her relationship with Oswald.
Baker’s story is told in a 608-page book (TrineDay, ISBN 9780979988677) originally published in 2010, and while I can’t comment on its factual accuracy, I was interested in extracting its cancer-related content and getting responses from the two cancer centers prominently mentioned in its pages--Ochsner and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
As she describes in the book, she was a cancer research wunderkind, who gained interest in curing the disease following the death of her grandmother from lymphoma and sarcoma, which subsequently resulted in Baker’s winning various science fairs, setting up a laboratory, working on a cancer and smoking project, and creating cancer in mice in a record seven days, all before graduating from high school in Florida.
She relates that she came to the attention of several cancer research luminaries in the early 1960s, and when she was 18, “crashed” the American Cancer Society’s Fourth Annual Science Writers’ Seminar in 1961. She soon found herself the guest of ACS Senior Vice President for Research Harold Diehl, MD, and Nobel Laureate (in chemistry) Sir Robert Robinson, PhD, who according to Baker, contacted former ACS President Ochsner and asked him to travel to the meeting to meet Baker, whom he had met briefly before. At the seminar, she was also introduced to George E. Moore, MD, Director of Roswell Park, who was also involved in an anti-smoking campaign.
To make a long story short, Moore invited her to work in his lab at Buffalo and learn radiobiology from James T. Grace Jr., MD (who eventually succeeded Moore as Institute director), and that summer she was also one of 66 high school students enrolled in Roswell’s Summer Program in Science, a fact verified by the cancer center when I called. RPCI also told me they found a note that she had worked with Moore, but didn’t have any records of her time spent with Grace.
Baker said that when she was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, she was recruited by Ochsner to work with Mary S. Sherman, MD, with the promise of a scholarship and early admission into Tulane Medical School.
Baker arrived in New Orleans in April 1963 and soon found that she was involved in a clandestine research project involving cancer caused by a polio vaccine contaminated with SV-40 (Simian vacuolating virus 40). During this time she met Lee Harvey Oswald, who was also involved in the project, and they became friends and eventually lovers.
Baker noted that Sherman was found brutally murdered in July 1964 on the day the Warren Commission came to New Orleans to obtain her testimony about the Kennedy assassination.
Baker also said that Alton Ochsner was well known for his anti-Castro activities (confirmed by various profiles of him available online), and that she was ultimately fired by him at the end of that August when she wrote a letter of protest expressing concern that “injecting disease-causing materials into an unwitting subject who does not have a disease is unethical.”
She added that she had last spoken with Oswald by phone two days before the Kennedy assassination and that following that event her future as a cancer researcher was over and her life was changed forever.
When I contacted the Ochsner Medical Center’s public relations office weeks before my scheduled interview with Baker, I spoke with PR manager Stafford Scott Maestri, who said she knew nothing about Baker’s history at Ochsner but would look into it.
After several unanswered follow-up calls, she finally wrote back later in October saying that she still had no further information, but that she was “still working on it.” Despite several more calls over the next few weeks, including one indicating that this would be posted, I never heard back.