Studying prison experiments Research: For 20 years, a dermatologist used the inmates of a Philadelphia prison as the willing subjects of tests on shampoo, foot powder, deodorant, and later, mind-altering drugs and dioxin.

July 21, 1998|By Howard Goodman | Howard Goodman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- It was 1951 when the father of Retin-A first came to Holmesburg Prison.

The 1,200 inmates of Philadelphia's gloomiest jail were plagued by an outbreak of athlete's foot, and the prison pharamacist had asked Dr. Albert M. Kligman, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist, to take a look.

Imagine the researcher's thrill as he stepped into the aging prison, hundreds of men milling around.

"All I saw before me were acres of skin," Kligman told a newspaper reporter in 1966. "It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time."

He had stumbled on a bonanza.

Twenty years later, Allen M. Hornblum entered the Philadelphia Detention Center to teach an adult literacy course.

Fresh out of a master's program at Villanova University, Hornblum, then 23, was getting his first view of a tough and alien society in a noisy, claustrophobic, foul-smelling city jail.

One sight struck him as particularly strange: Scores of men, bare-chested in the heat, their backs, shoulders and arms striped with gauze pads and adhesive tape.

"The sight of that, quite frankly, never left my mind," said Hornblum, now 50 and at the end of a long "crusade" - his word - to piece together the full story of what those bandages implied. The result is his first book, "Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison; A True Story of Abuse and Exploitation in the Name of Medical Science" (Routledge).

The bandaged inmates were not, as Hornblum first thought, victims of some awful riot. As guards and inmates told him, the prisoners were taking part in "perfume experiments" conducted by doctors from the University of Pennsylvania. They were renting their bodies for cash.

And nobody seemed to think it unusual.

20 years of experiments

The experiments in Philadelphia's prisons had been going on for 20 years, under Kligman's tutelage: tests involving toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, skin creams, detergents, liquid diets, eye drops, foot powders and hair dye, "seemingly benign," Hornblum writes, "but accompanied by constant biopsies and frequently painful procedures."

And there were other tests, Hornblum would later learn, involving mind-altering drugs, radioactive isotopes and dioxin.

Kligman, who is 82 and living in Philadelphia, became a wealthy man and a famous name in dermatology, the inventor of Retin-A, the acne cream and wrinkle-remover widely hailed as youth in a tube.

"The early human trials," Hornblum writes of Retin-A, "were performed on the backs and faces of the Holmesburg inmates."

Kligman has denied doing anything wrong. "My use of paid prisoners as research subjects in the 1950s and 1960s was in keeping with this nation's standard protocol for conducting scientific investigations at that time," he said in a recent )R two-sentence statement, one of the few he has made on the subject.

"To the best of my knowledge," Kligman added, "the result of those experiments advanced our knowledge of the pathogenesis skin disease, and no long-term harm was done to any person who voluntarily participated in the research program."

The experiments ended in 1974 as a wave of national publicity and congressional hearings put an end to most human experimentation involving populations such as prisoners and mental patients.

But Hornblum - who spent 10 years as a literacy instructor in the detention center, served on the prison system's board of trustees and sat on the board of the Philadelphia Prison Society - remained haunted by what he'd seen at Holmesburg, the Detention Center and the House of Correction.

"It was chilling," he said in a recent interview, "to be in a totalitarian atmosphere, which a prison is, and to see minorities - the prison was about 85 percent black and there were very few high school graduates - to see all these people involved in some medical experiment about which they had a minimal amount of information.

"It just rubbed me raw."

The idea that an injustice had gone unaddressed nagged at Hornblum ever after. Four years ago, the sometime college teacher and political adviser quit his job as chief of staff to Philadelphia Sheriff John Green. Without a book contract or a salary to fall back on, he plunged headlong into a welter of interviews, libraries and obscure documents, hoping to illuminate era that had received very little light over the years.

Hornblum is not the first critic to raise questions about the Philadelphia prison experiments. In 1979 the Philadelphia Inquirer disclosed that Holmesburg inmates had been used as guinea pigs to test whether mind-altering drugs were useful as Army weapons. In 1981 the paper reported that inmates had been dosed with dioxin to test the herbicide's effects on human

health.

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