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Penn Medicine apologizes for notorious doctor who conducted experiments on Holmesburg Prison inmates

Dr. Albert Kligman, a longtime faculty member who was a pioneer of anti-acne medication, has since become notorious for unethical medical research.

1987 File photo: Dr. Albert Kligmann, professor of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania's Medical School.
1987 File photo: Dr. Albert Kligmann, professor of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania's Medical School.Read moreINQUIRER ARCHIVES

The dean of Penn Medicine on Friday issued an apology for the work of Dr. Albert Kligman, a longtime faculty member who was a pioneer of anti-acne medication but has since become notorious for conducting medical research on inmates, most of them Black, at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison.

The apology was included in a statement by J. Larry Jameson, the dean of Penn Medicine, posted online.

Jameson also outlined steps that Penn Medicine is taking to address the harm caused by Kligman’s conduct, “which are not now, and never were, morally acceptable.”

Allen Hornblum, author of the 1998 book Acres of Skin, which detailed the horrors of the medical experiments conducted at Holmesburg Prison, said in an email to The Inquirer that he hopes Penn Medicine will “follow through on their statement of making amends through programmatic changes and new hires.”

Hornblum said: “Dr. Kligman was one of the most unethical and mercenary of Cold War researchers as he was willing to entertain any research protocol no matter what danger it presented to the desperate, unschooled men and women imprisoned in the county jail.”

Hornblum added: “For decades, Penn has continued to honor Dr. Kligman with lectureships and professorships, despite his horrendous record of using institutionalized children and prisoners. Though Penn has finally come around — due to increasing public pressure — their record on this issue is an embarrassment to higher education and the escutcheon they hold so dear.”

A committee convened by Jameson in 2019 acknowledged that Kligman, who died in 2010, “made groundbreaking contributions to the field of dermatology” that are outweighed by how he conducted his research.

“Penn Medicine acknowledges that the work done by Dr. Kligman was terribly disrespectful of individuals — many of whom were imprisoned Black men ― denying them the autonomy and informed consent which the medical community now considers to be foundational underpinnings for conducting ethical research,” Jameson wrote.

“Penn Medicine apologizes for the pain Dr. Kligman’s work caused to incarcerated individuals, their families, and our broader community. While we cannot alter this history, the actions we are announcing today as an institution will change significant aspects of how we recognize Dr. Kligman and his research, and will also devote substantial resources to research focused on skin of color and to education and patient care for underserved and vulnerable populations,” Jameson wrote.

To address Kligman’s legacy, Jameson announced that an annual lecture named in his honor has been discontinued. The lecture was suspended last year pending the report of the committee.

The “Kligman Professorship II” is renamed as the Bernett L. Johnson Jr. MF Professorship. Johnson was a longtime Black faculty member of the Department of Dermatology and chief medical officer of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania “who was a steadfast advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Jameson said.

The first Bernett Johnson professor will be Susan Taylor, who is the inaugural Vice Chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Department of Dermatology and an innovator in skin of color dermatology, Jameson said.

Research funding will be established for “Diversity and Equity in Dermatologic Research, Education, and Care.”

Jameson said the multiyear financial commitment will redirect funds previously held in Kligman’s name. The funds will go to scholarships for urban high school students “of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds to participate in Penn Academy for Skin Health (PASH), a program that engages local high school students with innovative STEM research related to dermatology, with a specific segment of the program dedicated to research focused on skin of color,” Jameson said.

The funds also will go to a new dermatology diversity residency position to train more dermatologists interested in skin of color and programs to support West Philadelphia residents, Jameson said.

And funds will go to three research fellowship positions for two medical students and one postdoctoral fellow to conduct research related to skin disorders among patients of color, Jameson said.

In January, two dermatologists, Adewole Adamson, an assistant professor at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, and Jules Lipoff, a faculty member at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a commentary piece calling for Penn to cut ties with Kligman.

“I think this announcement is a step in the right direction. It’s long past time that Penn apologize for the transgressions of one of their prominent faculty members. However, there are a few issues regarding the statement that are missing or concerning,” Adamson said in an email Friday night.

“There are two professorships named after Dr. Kligman, but only one is mentioned as being renamed. It leaves questions about the fate of the second professorship. There are research labs at Penn named after Dr. Kligman. The press release does not mention whether those will remain,” Adamson said.

“The press release goes out of its way to imply that what Dr. Kligman was doing was ‘legal.’ However, there was a lawsuit brought about by the victims of his prison experiments which was thrown out because the statute of limitations and not necessarily because of the legality of the suit,” Adamson added.

“The press release centers the accomplishments and greatness of Dr. Kligman and does not mention by name any of the victims such as Leodus Jones who fought on behalf of the Holmesburg prisoners. Furthermore, the press release does not call out the specific transgressions that Dr. Kligman perpetrated,” Adamson said.

“The residency diversity initiative that they will fund was already in place before this committee statement,” Adamson said.