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Philadelphia issues apology for Holmesburg Prison experiments

The city has apologized for the unethical experiments performed on Holmesburg inmates between the 1950s and '70s by a former University of Pennsylvania faculty member.

Albert Kligman, shown in October 1987.
Albert Kligman, shown in October 1987.Read moreINQUIRER ARCHIVES

The City of Philadelphia issued an apology Thursday for the unethical experiments a University of Pennsylvania faculty member of 50 years performed on Holmesburg Prison inmates between the 1950s and 1970s.

Albert Kligman, one of the pioneers of modern dermatology who developed Retin-A, experimented on mostly Black male inmates, exposing them to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos, LSD, and a component of Agent Orange. The men were paid but unknowing subjects, with some experiencing active reactions for up to seven months, according to reports published by The Inquirer in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

“Without excuse, we formally and officially extend a sincere apology to those who were subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse,” said Mayor Jim Kenney in a statement. “We are also sorry it took far too long to hear these words. To the families and loved ones across generations who have been impacted by this deplorable chapter in our city’s history, we are hopeful this formal apology brings you at least a small measure of closure.”

» READ MORE: Penn Medicine apologizes for notorious doctor who conducted experiments on Holmesburg Prison inmates

Kenney said that despite these experiments having taken place decades ago, the impact of the medical racism these inmates experienced has extended to the present day.

Experiment survivors like Leodus Jones, who would leave prison and become an influential activist and community leader, would bear scars for the rest of his life after being injected with what he was told was a rare disease from India. Jones would share his experience in congressional hearings about the Tuskegee experiments. The fallout of these experiments would lead to restrictions on medical experiments in prisons.

After obtaining some 1,800 pages of Pentagon records, The Inquirer published a report in 1979 detailing a contract between Penn and the U.S. Army. With Kligman at the helm of the research, more than 300 inmates tested mind-control drugs and potential “skin hardeners” to protect soldiers from chemical warfare. In the latter experiments, the paper found inmates “complained bitterly” of side effects, including inflammation that lasted weeks and eventually eliminated the “willingness of the subjects to go on.”

In 1981, the newspaper published another piece detailing the limited information 70 inmates were given when signing up for a separate set of experiments performed around the same time as the Pentagon contract. The $10,000 contract with Dow Chemical Co. led to the testing of dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange, in inmates. The forms they signed for these experiments never mentioned the chemicals used or potential side effects. They simply authorized the experiments and aimed to clear the hospital, laboratories, and prison of any liability for complications.

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.

In a Johnson & Johnson study, inmates were injected with asbestos to compare it against talc on the skin.

Details of the experiments resurfaced in 1998 when Allen Hornblum published Acres of Skin — a title that references Kligman’s first impression when visiting the Philadelphia prison.

“All I saw before me were acres of skin,” Kligman told the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia in 1966. “It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.”

In an interview with Hornblum, Kligman would say, “All we did is offer them money for a little piece of their skin.”

When the book was published, Kligman would double-down and say his work was in line with standard research protocols at the time. He claimed no one suffered long-term effects, but the debate over the experiments was far from over.

By 2000, close to 300 former prisoners who reported injuries from the experiments would sue the city, Penn, and Kligman — the suit missed the statute of limitations — even as Kligman continued to receive accolades for his advancements in dermatology.

Hornblum, Jones’ daughter, and attorney Michael Coard penned a letter to Kenney and Council last month demanding an apology.

In his statement Thursday, Kenney noted that experiments like these have created distrust in communities of color and he vowed to continue to rectify past wrongs.

The city’s apology is the latest in a series of slow rebukes. Following the racial reckoning of 2020, two dermatologists, including one from Penn, made the case to reconsider honorifics, including professorships, named after Kligman.

» READ MORE: Penn must cut ties with Dr. Albert Kligman, who conducted unethical human research on Black men | Opinion

Almost a year after that call to action was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology, Penn Medicine would issue an apology for Kligman’s experiments, renaming an annual lecture previously bearing his name and redirecting research funds held in his name to dermatology residents interested in working on skin of color and other fellowships.

For Hornblum, the apology from the city is an opportunity to educate the public on a stain that went unchecked for nearly 25 years because the experiments affected what was seen as a “throwaway” population. What’s more, the lessons of Holmesburg carry value for medical workers today.

“Doctors need to know why they’ve got to take these precautions and fill out these forms and educate test subjects and things like that,” Hornblum said, “because if this is not valued, as it has not been in the past, all sorts of liberties are taken.”