University of Minnesota

HUAC invades CVD Epidemiology: Stamler v. Willis, 1965

For many years the Committee on Un-American Activities of the United States House of Representatives (HUAC), conducted hearings throughout the country on the affiliations, opinions, and actions of American citizens based on an over-broad mandate and vague definition of “un-Americanism.” It was a classic abuse of the investigative powers of Congress, branding individual citizens as disloyal. Eventually, after destroying many careers, the committee lost credibility and was disbanded. This was in substantial part because they knew not what they were undertaking when they took on Jeremiah Stamler, CVD epidemiologist of Chicago!

A full edition of the Harvard Law Review of 1976 considered the case of Stamler versus Willis, Stamler being Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, then heading a division of the Chicago Board of Health and pioneer CVD investigator, and Congressman Edwin Willis, Chairman of the House Committee (Sullivan et al.1976).

In May 1965, the Committee scheduled hearings in Chicago and subpoenaed Dr. Stamler, while it promised to expose communist subversion in Chicago. Though its rules forbade release of names of prospective witnesses being called, these were leaked to the press and became headlines for several weeks prior to the hearings, clearly reflecting on the reputations of citizens. As a result only of the pre-hearing publicity, several were asked to resign from their jobs and others received threats on their lives.

The Committee also disobeyed its own rules by holding open public hearings rather than closed. It was running roughshod over all in those days. Fifteen Chicago witnesses were called, including Stamler and Yolanda Hall, research nutritionist in his department. Moreover, the Stamler case had been immediately preceded by another, Dombrowski v. Pfister, in which the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled to confirm 1st Amendment rights of citizens, with a ruling that the House Committee’s charter was “unconstitutional on its face as vague and overly broad,” and that accordingly subpoenas issued by the Committee to plaintiffs were invalid. There was even an injunction against forthcoming Committee hearings based upon the inherent power of the Federal courts to protect 1st Amendment rights of citizens (ibid., 255).

The Supreme Court had written in another recent case about the Committee’s activities: “It would be difficult to imagine a less specific authorizing resolution. Who can define the meaning of ‘un-American?’ What is that single, solitary ‘principle of the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution?’” Thus, the Supreme Court, in Watkins, stated that the 1st Amendment controlled legislative investigations and condemned “exposure for exposure’s sake” (ibid., 257). Nevertheless, in another 5 to 4 vote around that time, in Barendlwatt v. United States, the Committee continued to be given pervasive authority to investigate “communist activities in the country.” Thus, the Committee continued its inquiries into the political beliefs and associations of citizens despite the absence of explicit connection with violence or espionage.

The Subpoena arrives

Jerry Stamler was in Europe when the 15 Chicago subpoenas prepared for the Committee arrived, and, within minutes of hearing the news, and recognizing the Constitutional rights that the Committee was infringing, he reached the office of the prestigious conservative constitutional law firm, Jenner and Block, the head of which, Albert E. Jenner, Jr. had served on the Warren Commission. That firm recognized instantly the weighty constitutional issues involved and Jenner signed on as chief counsel to Stamler’s defense with alacrity. Their defense plan from the outset was to reject the constitutionality of the summons and the whole way of operation of the Un-American Activities Committee itself. Jerry Stamler would therefore refuse to testify before the Committee.

For those who failed to recognize immediately these constitutional issues and asked Stamler what the Committee’s informant was talking about, Jerry had approximately this reply: “Where I lived in the 1940s in New York City, among those of my ethnic origin and political bent, I would have been grossly aberrant not to have been active in left-wing organizations in those days.” This made sense. It did not elaborate the constitutional right to hold dissident political views. Nor did it include or exclude formal Communist Party activities; the party being legal in Stamlers’s earlier time.

Ancel Keys raised another, if specious argument in his early letter attempting to be supportive to Stamler: “I personally know that you have devoted to the cause of medical science so many hours, day and night, seven days a week, that it is literally impossible for you to have engaged in any appreciable way in other activities, at least over the years I have known you.” One can hear old Edwin E. Willis or J. Parnell Thomas, the first Committee chairs, growl gleefully at such naïve academic logic.

Eventually, in 1966, Stamler and Hall appeared before the HUAC Committee hearings held in the Chicago court of Judge Julius Hoffman. They declined to answer questions other than their names and addresses. They did not plead the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination. In November, 1966, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit demanded the case be heard by a three-judge District Court, rejecting the plaintiffs’ appeal for dismissal.

The plaintiffs’ case, against belaboring witnesses and trampling rights of citizens by an agency of the government, struck home. An appeals court ruled that the entire history of the House Un-American Activities Committee could be reviewed at trial, based on massive evidence in the thousands of pages of printed transcripts of its hearings. Rose Stamler, Jerry’s wife, with help from a social scientist, set about to prepare a content analysis of those pages for its civil counter-suit against the Committee. Thus, the HUAC, for the first time faced the specter of having its every word, action and motive presented and questioned in open court, a turning of the tables.

In October 1966, despite the swordsplay, parry and thrust, the House of Representatives resolved that the plaintiffs were in contempt of court for failing to remain at the Chicago hearing and to answer all Committee questions. When, in July 1967, they were indicted for contempt of Congress they made a direct appeal for dismissal to the Supreme Court. Their plea was not accepted on the grounds that the case was to be heard by a three-judge district court and therefore a direct appeal to the Supreme Court did not apply. Rather, that court ordered the plaintiffs’ complaint to be tried on its merits.

Then the district Court of Appeals stressed, citing the case of Dombrowski v. Pfister, the advantage of civil as opposed to criminal litigation for resolving fundamental 1st Amendment issues and stated that “the Congress has no more right, whether through legislation or investigations conducted under an over-broad, enabling act, to abridge the 1st Amendment freedoms of people than do other branches of government” (ibid. 255).

A subsequent series of rulings against Stamler and Hall by Judge Hoffman were reversed by the deliberations of all three members of the court and the Stamler issue dragged on. Finally, in 1973, the House Committee agreed to dismissal of its 1967 indictments of them if they, the plaintiffs, would forego their appeal from the anticipated dismissal of their civil suit against the Committee. This agreed, all proceedings ended on December 21, 1973, after 8 ½ years of litigation.

Meanwhile, “the Committee under pressure from impending judicial review, had sharply curtailed its activities and changed its name and mandate. And a year after the Stamler case ended, the House voted to “terminate the Committee altogether” (ibid. 256). In an early letter from Ancel Keys to Jerry Stamler, dated May 19, 1965, Keys had concluded: “Perhaps you may be consoled to see many friends rally to your side. Perhaps, in the long run, the cause of the idea of your choice may be helped by what will come out of the House Committee action.” In this case, Keys was prescient. The hierarchy had no idea of the bobcat whose lair it had invaded, and in the end it would retreat, gravely wounded, soon to die.

Stamler’s case, along with that of James Dombrowski, were central in destroying the credibility and breaking the back of the HUAC power, along with that of other McCarthy-type forays by Congress to suppress freedom of thought and political speech and action. They simply did not know who they were taking on when they tagged ol’ Jerry Stamler. (Henry Blackburn)


Sullivan, T.P., Kamin, C.T., and Sussman, A.N. 1976. The case against HUAC. The Stamler litigation. Civil Liberties Law Review 11(2):243-298.