After decades of outrage and community activism, the city of Philadelphia has now formally apologized for authorizing a local doctor to conduct medical experiments on inmates — most of whom were black and still awaiting prosecution — during the mid-twentieth century.
On Thursday, the office of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney released a formal statement admitting that the city had allowed University of Pennsylvania researcher and dermatologist Dr. Albert Kligman to subject poor, mainly black and illiterate inmates at Holmesburg Prison to “pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos, and even dioxin, a component of Agent Orange” while they awaited trial. The experiments continued for approximately two decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s.
“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,” Mayor Kenney said. “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. That is why our Administration today, on behalf of the City of Philadelphia, is addressing this shameful time in Holmesburg’s history.”
Officials estimate that as many as 300 inmates were used in the experiments. While those in the program were paid for their participation, many of them had not even been tried for a crime and were desperate for bail money, creating an unethical power structure which compelled many vulnerable inmates to consent to experiments for money and unknowingly expose their bodies to dangerous chemicals.
In 2000, a group of former Holmesburg participants sued the university and Kligman, claiming that they had suffered years of health and psychological problems as a result of the experiments. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed because, the court asserted, the statute of limitations had already expired.
Kligman himself was often well-compensated for the experiments. In some cases, he was paid tens of thousands of dollars to test various chemicals on human beings at Holmesburg. Until his death in 2010, Kligman continued to defend his research methods. “My view is that shutting the prison experiments down was a big mistake,” he said in 2006. “… I’m on the medical ethics committee at Penn, and I still don’t see there having been anything wrong with what we were doing.”
Medical experiment rules were different at the time, but they were still regulated. Kligman began the Holmesburg experiments just a few years after the horrors of the medical experiments conducted in Nazi concentration and death camps were made known, and the Nuremberg Code, which strictly limited human medical experiments, had already been passed.
Kligman did make some ethically-sourced advancements in dermatology regarding ailments like athlete’s foot and dandruff, and he and research partners Dr. James E. Fulton and Dr. Gerd Plewig developed the popular acne treatment Retin-A, which is still on the market. However, Kligman’s legacy remains tied to the Holmesburg experiments, and as a result, his name has since been removed from various University of Pennsylvania honorifics.