The City of Philadelphia has issued a formal apology for medical experiments the University of Pennsylvania conducted on mostly Black men who were inmates at Holmesburg Prison from the 1950s through the 1970s.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued a press release with the apology in October. According to the release, “inmates were intentionally exposed to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos, and even dioxin, a component of Agent Orange.”
The release further states that many of them were illiterate and trying to save money for bail.
“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,” 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.”
“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,” Kenney continued. “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. 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.”
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The experiments were led by Dr. Albert Kligman, who has been celebrated as one of the most important figures in modern dermatology. He used the research he gathered from the trials to develop Retin A and Renova, both of whose patents earned him millions of dollars in royalties, the Daily Philadelphia reported.
The medical experiments left many inmates with lifelong scars and health issues. Some of them filed a lawsuit against Kligman and UPenn in 2010, but it was eventually thrown out due to the statute of limitations, NBC News reported.
Kligman remained a renowned member of UPenn’s staff until he died in 2010, according to Dr. J. Larry Jameson, dean of UPenn’s Perelman School of Medicine. He released a statement apologizing for the university’s role in the experiments in Aug. 2021.
“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. “Legality, of itself, does not excuse these activities, which are not now, and never were, morally acceptable, even if Dr. Kligman and his contemporaries believed them to be.”
Jameson added the university “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 said he convened a faculty committee in 2019 to examine Kligman’s legacy despite his “groundbreaking contributions” to dermatology that have “benefited millions of people.”
Among the recommendations were to sunset an annual lectureship named after Dr. Kligman; rename the Kligman Professorship; and establish research funding for diversity and equity in Dermatologic Research, Education and Care.
While some activists appreciate the apology as a first step, they say it is not enough. Some call for financial compensation for Dr. Kligman’s victims and families.
Adrianne Jones-Alston is the daughter of one of the victims of the medical experiments, the late Leodus Jones. She is among those leading the fight for justice and is a proponent of reparations.
“I remember when I was around age 5, my father’s behavior and appearance after his incarceration and Kligman’s guinea pig experiments changed dramatically,” Jones told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “His skin smelled burnt and his back gradually took on the appearance of a map.”
“My father’s skin is on shelves and in stores, his skin is in people’s medicine cabinets. They’re still reaping the benefits of what happened,” Jones-Alston added. “So why not share the wealth? Why not at least give the children and grandchildren some type of college tuition or something [like that]?”
Penn nursing graduate Valerie Bai agrees and helped organize #PennReparationsNow, which calls for the university to apologize and compensate the families for Dr. Kligman’s unethical and immoral medical experiments.
“Financial compensation is one of the very first steps that Penn can take very easily with its billions and billions of dollars in the endowment,” Bai told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “It would be one step in a long series of steps towards reckoning with Penn’s history of racism and abuse of its power as an institution. Ultimately, it would be something that would benefit the victims by listening to them and doing what is right by them.”
PHOTO: A black man included in a syphilis study has blood drawn by a doctor in Tuskegee, Ala., 1950s. (National Archives via AP)