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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

But Hornblum's account is the most extensive and detailed to date. He writes that inmates were told very little about the tests performed on them - in violation, Hornblum argues, of the Nuremberg Code adopted after World War II in reaction to Nazi medical atrocities. The code's first statement: "The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential."

Eager for pay

Prisoners, Hornblum writes, were more than eager to gamble their health for pay. At Holmesburg, the going rate was $10 to $300, depending on the experiment - a fortune compared with the jail's normal wages of 15 cents or 25 cents a day.

Hornblum describes Kligman as a brilliant and entrepreneurial scientist, a pioneer in his field, a man of brimming self-confidence who told students that rules don't apply to genius.

To Kligman, a prison population was ideal for research. "An anthropoid colony," he called it, "mainly healthy, under perfect control conditions."

"I began to go to the prison regularly, although I had no authorization," Kligman said in a 1986 history of Penn's dermatology department. "It was years before the authorities knew that I was conducting various studies on prisoner volunteers. Things were simpler then. Informed consent was unheard of. No one asked me what I was doing. It was a wonderful time."

Before long, "Holmesburg Prison became one of America's largest, nontherapeutic, human research factories," Hornblum writes.

A common test was what inmates called a "patch test." Strips of hospital tape were stuck to an inmate's upper back, forming a grid with about 20 squares. On each square went a dab of lotion (skin cream, moisturizer, suntan lotion - a variety of products). Then came heat from a sunlamp. Doctors checked the skin for peeling, burning and blistering at different temperatures.

Withers Pond, a 79-year-old lifer, told Hornblum he once volunteered for a "gauze test." Without anesthetic, he lay on a table while two doctors cut two 1-inch incisions on each side of his lower back, inserted gauze pads into the wounds and then stitched him up, he said. Ten days later, doctors reopened one wound, removed the gauze pad and restitched him. They removed the other gauze pad 10 days later.

Pond never learned the purpose of the exercise, but he got $20. "Now I got these scars all over my back," he said.

"Both inmates and guards say you can recognize a Holmesburg prisoner decades later," Hornblum writes, "by the distinctive scars from skin burns and patch tests."

One guard told him: "Guys looked like zebras when the patches came off."

A former inmate named Johnnie Williams told Hornblum that the mind-altering drugs he took as a Holmesburg research subject changed his personality; he went from small-time hood to violent criminal.

Hit by a car recently, Williams refused to go to a hospital. "I'm paranoid about doctors," he told Hornblum. "I'm scared of 'em."

For all that, there are few documented cases of long-term injury to the estimated thousands of inmates who took part in the experiments. The main reason, according to Hornblum: Kligman destroyed the records when the program was killed in 1974.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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