The city of Philadelphia has issued an apology for two decades of unethical experimentation on Black inmates in the mid-20th century. With the consent of the prison system, one of the top research institutions in America exposed prisoners of color to synthetic and carcinogenic agents for the purpose of their private study.
On Thursday, Oct. 6, the Mayor’s Office of Communications released the statement, sharing that between the 1950s to the 1970s, dermatological, biochemical, and pharmaceutical experiments that exposed approximately 300 inmates to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos, LSD, and even dioxin, a component of Agent Orange, was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison by researcher Dr. Albert Kligman, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Kligman is often touted as one of the pioneers of modern dermatology, developing the chemical Retin-A, used in many cosmetic products to improve the appearance of skin like acne, dark sport, and other conditions like actinic keratoses.
While he paid the men who participated in the experiments, the subjects were unaware of the risks. The Inquirer reported in the late ’70s and early ’80s, that many of the men experienced reactions and side effects to the drugs for over half a year.
The publication received 1,800 Pentagon records showing the contract between the U.S. Army and the Ivy League to conduct the tests and published it in 1979. The study used mind-control drugs and potential “skin hardeners” that would one day be used to protect members of the military brand in cases of chemical warfare.
The report revealed the subjects “complained bitterly” of the side effects and many stopped wanting to participate.
In 1981, the outlet published a follow-up article, sharing that 70 other inmates were signing up to participate in an experiment to test dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange. The contract shared in this article was between the U.S. military agency and Dow Chemical Co.
According to the paper, “The final 10 participants would receive 468 times the maximum dosage recommended by Dow and the city would lose track of them 15 years after the experiments.”
The city’s apology 40 years later, stated, “The vast majority of those subjected to this wide range of experimentation were Black men, many of them illiterate, awaiting prosecution and attempting to save enough money to make bail.”
It added, “whatever the ‘ethical norms’ for prison experimentation were at the time, it was wrong to exploit this vulnerable population.”
Leodus Jones, an experiment survivor, said he still carries the scars from being injected with what he believes was a “rare disease from India.”
After being released from prison, he became an activist and influential community stakeholder, who once spoke about his experience as one of Kligman’s subjects in congressional hearings about the Tuskegee experiments, resulting in laws being passed to limit medical experimentation on the incarcerated.
The release on behalf of the officials governing the city continued to say, “This is yet another tragic example of disgraceful and unethical practices of medical experimentation on people of color throughout our country’s history.”
Jim Kenney, the 99th mayor of the city and a white man born in the 1950s, spent his career as a lifelong politician, also released his personal reflections on the experiments and the overtones of systemic racism presented by the new admission.
He said, “While this happened many decades ago, we know that the historical impact and trauma of this practice of medical racism has extended for generations — all the way through to the present day. One of our administration’s priorities is to rectify historic wrongs while we work to build a more equitable future and to do that, we must reckon with past atrocities.”
Kenney further stated this is why his administration had to address “this shameful time in Holmesburg’s history.”
In 1998, the book “Acres of Skin” by Allen Hornblum resurfaced, in which Kligman recalled his first time visiting the prison and his initial impression when he saw the inmates.
“All I saw before me were acres of skin,” Kligman is quoted in the book saying, “It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.”
“All we did is offer them money for a little piece of their skin,” he revealed.
Almost 300 of the former prisoners tried to sue the city, University of Pennsylvania and Kligman in 2000, but could not because of the statute of limitations.
Hornblum, Jones’ daughter Adrianne Jones-Alston, and lawyer Michael Coard reached out to the officials in the City Council and the mayor demanding an apology be made. They submitted their demand on Sept. 29 to Kenney, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, Tenth District Councilman Brian J. O’Neill, and all other Councilpersons.
It read in part, “For nearly a quarter-century, from 1951 to 1974, the city of Philadelphia allowed a prominent dermatologist and an elite academic institution access to inmates in the county prison system. The prisoners were used as raw material for medical research and were critical to what would become the largest human experimentation factory in American history.”
“Though unsophisticated,” it further stated, “the prisoners, who overwhelmingly were African-American from the mid-1960s — were incorporated into a wide range of experiments that ran the gamut from innocuous toothpaste, hair dye and athletes’ foot medications to more dangerous experiments involving herpes simplex, wart virus and myriad Phase I drug trials.”
“We believe the city of Philadelphia owes an apology to not only the former test subjects and their family members, but also to the general public for allowing such an unethical and exploitative financial enterprise to occur in [what was then] the third largest city in the nation,” the three pushed.
Kenney said, “Without excuse, we formally and officially extend a sincere apology to those who were subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse. We are also sorry it took far too long to hear these words.”
He addressed the families and multiple generations impacted by “this deplorable chapter in our city’s history,” saying this administration “hopeful” the “formal apology” brings them closure.
“Recognizing the deep distrust experiments like this have created in our communities of color, we vow to continue to fight the inequities and disparities that continue to this day,” he concluded.
The University of Penn, the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology, and Penn Medicine are struggling with what to do with the legacy of Kligman, and are considering taking away honorifics, including professorships, named after Kligman.
They also issued an apology of their own, renamed the annual lecture which bore his name, and pulled funds that would have normally been allocated in his name and now will be giving them to dermatology residents working with people of color and their skin. Some monies will also be directed into fellowships for soon-to-be dermatologists who are interested in working with dark skin.