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October 06, 2022

Philadelphia apologizes for 'deplorable' history of medical experiments on Holmesburg Prison inmates

The testing program ran from 1951-1974, predominantly using Black prisoners to study a wide range of chemical compounds

Government Prisons
Holmesburg Prison Philadelphia Source/Google Maps

From 1951-1974, hundreds of inmates at the Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia were used as test subjects for a range of medical and other research experiments. The city issued a formal apology on Thursday for its involvement in the programs.

The former Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia has been inactive since 1995, concealing its dark legacy of inmate exploitation from a time when the United States was ethically permissive – and often aggressive – about medical experimentation using people behind bars.

Medical testing programs at Holmesburg Prison ran from 1951-1974, led by University of Pennsylvania dermatology professor Albert Kligman, who viewed the predominantly Black prison population as a low-risk and plentiful pool of test subjects for more than 250 different chemical compounds.

On Thursday, 20 years after a federal court dismissed a lawsuit filed by more than 300 inmates involved in these experiments, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued an apology for the city's role in preying on prisoners:

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. 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. 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.

Built in 1896, Holmesburg Prison was modeled after Eastern State Penitentiary and intended to relieve overcrowding at the former Moyamensing Prison in South Philly. The massive, radial structure along Torresdale Avenue, nicknamed "The Terrordome" for the violence that occurred within its walls, has 10 cell blocks that accommodated approximately 1,500 inmates.

As recounted by staff at the Mütter Museum, Kligman visited the prison in 1951 to treat an outbreak of athlete's foot among the inmates, and he saw an opportunity.

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

Kligman's experiments used hundreds of inmates to test products like facial creams, skin moisturizers, anti-rash treatments, toothpastes, shampoos, perfumes and detergents. He hoped his research would change the way dermatologists treated common conditions, such as ringworm, staph infections, herpes and acne.

Companies like pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson and Dow Chemical Co., that sponsored the research, were equally enticed by the inexpensive human test subjects. The parameters of the studies were not as cautious as they might have been elsewhere, and the development of the compounds being tested could lead to profitable products and lucrative contracts.

Among the most troubling experiments at the prison were tests of radioactive isotopes and other hazardous materials, like dioxin, a toxic biological agent that was a component of Agent Orange. The herbicide, one of many used by the U.S. military for deforestation during the Vietnam War, has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer and birth defects to skin rashes and neurological problems.

For their participation in the experiments, inmates would be paid stipends ranging from a few dollars to several hundred or more. Because of the money – and assurances by Kligman and his associates that the tests did not pose any longterm risks – the tests became attractive options for people in jail, who hoped to post bail and get out of Holmesburg Prison while awaiting trial.

The history of tests at Holmesburg was examined in the 1998 book, "Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison," in which Philadelphia-native and criminal justice professor A.M. Hornblum discusses the program and the legal dilemma of whether informed consent can be given by prisoners.

Hornblum's book features interviews with prison inmates, doctors and prison officials involved in the experiments, painting a disturbing picture of the abuse and greed behind Kligman's program.

Though medical testing on inmates was relatively common in the years during and after World War II, the turning point for the end of the Holmesburg experiments was public outrage about the infamous experiment now known as the "U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee."

Cited as a glaring example of racism in American medical research, the experiment in Alabama from 1932-1972 tested the long-term effects of leaving syphilis untreated. The study enrolled hundreds of poor, Black sharecroppers who were deliberately misinformed about their medical conditions, giving them deceptive and unhelpful treatments for "bad blood."

Even after penicillin became available in 1947, the study participants went decades without treatment. A total of 128 patients died of syphilis and related complications, while many had wives who contracted the disease and children who were born with it.

A lawsuit over the Tuskegee study resulted in an out-of-court settlement for $10 million in 1974, but the lasting consequence of the study has been a lingering distrust of medical providers and health care institutions in communities of color.

The public outcry about the Tuskegee experiment in the 1970s prompted similar efforts to end the Holmesburg tests and seek a settlement for inmates who were involved.

One former test subject received $40,000 after he sued the University of Pennsylvania, Kligman, Dow Chemical and the city of Philadelphia. Others settled lawsuits out of court, and in 1998, a group of inmates protested outside the University of Pennsylvania and at the Philadelphia College of Physicians, where Kligman had been scheduled to receive an award. 

The largest lawsuit, filed in 2000, came from nearly 300 inmates who sought financial compensation from the University of Pennsylvania, the city, Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson and Ivy Research Laboratories. The prisoners cited lasting effects of the experiments and mistreatment.

The case was dismissed two years later by a federal appeals court, which affirmed an earlier ruling that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their lawsuit.

For many years after Holmesburg Prison was shut down, it remained in use for tactical training by the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and even has been used as a filming location for TV shows and movies.

In more recent years, the city closed its oldest remaining prison, the House of Corrections in Northeast Philadelphia, as part of a long-term effort with the McArthur Foundation to reduce the city's prison population – which has lately been rising again – and end the use of outdated facilities.