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California Medical School Apologizes After Report Shows Two Professors Experimented on Mentally Ill Prisoners; One Still Works at the University

A California medical school has issued an apology for research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by faculty members who conducted dozens of medical experiments on thousands of prison inmates, but one of the professors involved still works at the school.

The men were “assessed or treated for psychiatric diagnoses” and the school injected their veins and skin with various pesticides and herbicides during the study.

The public is calling for the one living professor to be fired from the institution despite the professor recently suffering a stroke.

For two decades, starting during the heights of the civil rights movement and ending in 1977, two professors from the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Howard Maibach and Dr. William Epstein, conducted unethical experiments (in the name of science) on at least 2,600 incarcerated men at the California Medical Facility, a prison hospital in Vacaville. Now, the school is apologizing, claiming it did not know the extent of the research until this year.

Man in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facility
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officer opens the gate for an inmate who is leaving the exercise yard at San Quentin State Prison’s death row on August 15, 2016, in San Quentin, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“UCSF apologizes for its explicit role in the harm caused to the subjects, their families, and our community by facilitating this research, and acknowledges the institution’s implicit role in perpetuating unethical treatment of vulnerable and underserved populations — regardless of the legal or perceptual standards of the time,” Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dan Lowenstein said in a statement.

The duo were faculty members in UCSF’s Department of Dermatology and trained with another eugenicist, Dr. Albert Kligman, whose unethical experiments on inmates in the 1950s to 1970s at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia made recent headlines.

The association, according to the school, the UCSF Program for Historical Reconciliation (PHR), prompted an investigation into their work.

Because Epstein, a former chair of the department, died in 2006, the committee focused its investigation on the work of Maibach, who currently is an active member of the department despite being ill.

According to the report, “Maibach was involved in human subjects research of incarcerated individuals until it was halted by the state of California in 1977. He began conducting human subjects research on incarcerated individuals during his fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania under the supervision of Albert Kligman. When Maibach joined UCSF in 1961, he took Kligman’s model and adapted it for his use at the California Medical Facility (CMF).”

During its investigation, which started in January 2022, the PHR research team identified, digitized, and assessed close to 7,000 archival documents, medical journal articles, interviews, documentaries, and books detailing or mentioning the experiments.

The group created three databases titled journal articles featuring human subjects research conducted in prisons, 1960-1980; journal articles on race; archival research and presented their initial findings to the school for further analysis.

According to the school, the inmates used for the experiments volunteered and were compensated $30 for their participation. It also reported Maibach’s work has yet to “show any protocols that were adopted regarding informed consent and communicating research risks to participants who were incarcerated.”

It is important to note that many of the volunteers were diagnosed with various forms of psychosis or mental impairment.

When presented with the findings and offered an opportunity to respond to his research, Maibach, who is aged and ailing, said he regretted his work.

“I regret having participated in research that did not comply with contemporary standards,” he wrote to the school. “The work I did with colleagues at CMF was considered by many to be appropriate by the standards of the day, although in retrospect those standards were clearly evolving.”

Adding, “I obviously would not work under those circumstances today – as the society in which we live in has unambiguously deemed this inappropriate. Accordingly, I have sincere remorse in relationship to these efforts some decades ago.”

The experiments that were viewed as “appropriate” at the time involved administering doses of pesticides and herbicides to the prisoners and placing tiny cages with mosquitos in them close to the participants’ arms or on their skin to examine the “host attractiveness of humans to mosquitoes.”

The research stopped in 1977 after the state passed legislation to prohibit human subject research in California prisons.

While their mentor Kligman was unapologetically about targeting Black men, concerns that Maibach and Epstein’s research was rooted in racial bigotry cannot be dismissed or substantiated.

Later in his life, records show Maibach evolved in his position on race. Where he once followed the teachings of eugenics, in some of his later studies he talked about how he had “come to the understanding that race has always been a social and not a biological construct, something not appreciated by so many of us in a prior era.”

The report stated, “While one of his (Maibach’s) recent articles hints at a possible reconsideration of the biology of race, we believe the long history of his research of skin differences along racial lines, with race as a possible biological factor, perpetuated the continuance of racial science in dermatology and has yet to be publicly addressed.”

The public has taken to social media to ask for him to be removed from UCSF’s faculty roster.

“Dr. Howard Maibach, one of the dermatologists responsible for the medical experiments, STILL WORKS AT UCSF. Begin by firing him,” one person tweeted.

Students are asking the school to justify his employment.

“@UCSFMedicine please explain why a eugenicist (Dr. Howard Maibach) is currently employed by the medical school I’m attending,” one student tweeted.

Some people are calling for the public to take action, including rallying up the family members of those who were part of the experiments.

“The CDCR has a public record of every inmate. We can find the names and family contacts of every prisoner in that system from 1960-1970 and reach out to ask if they or their family members were experimented on by @UCSF professor Howard Maibach. It wouldn’t be too hard to do,” Dr. Rupa Marya suggests, adding that the school’s hands are not clean.

The professor’s son, Edward Maibach, said his father had a stroke earlier in December after the research was released according to The Associated Press.

He also states the university’s hands are not clean, taking issue with how the school has not only framed his father’s work 40 to 60 years ago but blasted how inaccurately it has presented its institutional relationship to the work.

He believes the school is not presenting his father “as a ‘lone ranger’ who seemingly acted without knowledge or approval at others at UCSF. This, too, is incorrect.”

“Dr. Maibach’s activities at Vacaville were known to, and endorsed by, UCSF administrators, including the UCSF ethicist,” Edward Maibach states.

Still, the school is trying to reconcile this ugly history, pledging to continue to see the impact of the professors’ research.

“We are still in the process of considering the recommendations and determining appropriate next steps,” the university said in a statement Thursday. “As we do so, it will be with humility and an ongoing commitment to a more just, equitable, and ethical future.”

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