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Philadelphia Apologizes for Unethical Experiments on Prisoners

A generation has passed since the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on medical experiments conducted on unwitting subjects incarcerated in a Pennsylvania prison from the 1950s to the 1970s. On Thursday, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney finally issued a formal apology for the unethical treatment that exposed some to physical harm, the Inquirer reports. “Without excuse, we formally and officially extend a sincere apology to those who were subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse,” Kenney said. “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.”

University of Pennsylvania faculty member Albert Kligman, one of the pioneers of modern dermatology who developed Retin-A, experimented on mostly Black male inmates at Holmesburg Prison, exposing them to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos, LSD, and a component of Agent Orange. Though paid, the men were unaware of the dangers they faced. A contract between Penn and the U.S. Army showed Kligman leading research using more than 300 inmates to test mind-control drugs and potential “skin hardeners” to protect soldiers from chemical warfare. Inmates “complained bitterly” of side effects that eventually eliminated the “willingness of the subjects to go on.” In 1981, the Inquirer reported that at the time of the Pentagon contract, 70 inmates who signed up for a set of different experiments were given limited information. The $10,000 contract with Dow Chemical Co. led to the testing of dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange. The forms signed aimed to clear the hospital, laboratories and prison of any liability. In an interview with Allen Hornblum, who published Acres of Skin, which documented the experiments, Kligman said, “All we did is offer them money for a little piece of their skin.” Kenney acknowledged the impact of medical racism and noted awareness of the distrust in communities of color and vowed to continue to rectify past wrongs.


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