College of Physicians issues ‘long overdue’ apology to Holmesburg Prison experiment survivors and their families

Listen 1:22
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. (The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

One of the country’s oldest medical organizations is apologizing for its silence on unethical scientific experimentations conducted on mostly Black people and low income residents while they were incarcerated in Philadelphia.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded in 1787 and dubbed the “birthplace of American medicine,” formally acknowledged its lack of action regarding the experiments that took place at the former Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia.

People at the prison were asked to participate in dermatological scientific experiments from 1951 to 1974 in exchange for money. But survivors and medical ethics experts say those people lacked true informed consent.

“It just became an accepted part of the medical penal culture in the city,” said Allen Hornblum, a member of the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition. “It’s a black mark for the city and in particular, its criminal justice system.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The College of Physicians didn’t take part in conducting the experiments. The studies were led by Dr. Albert Kligman, a professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School who became known for his invention of Retin-A, the acne medication.

Kligman, who died in 2010, received support from the city, government agencies, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers to test viruses, fungus, treatments for skin conditions, and chemical agents like asbestos and dioxin, the poisonous component of Agent Orange, on hundreds of incarcerated people.

The doctor was a fellow of the College of Physicians, which honored him with the organization’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 2003, despite protests from justice advocates.

“The College of Physicians offers its deepest sympathies for those who suffered, including their families, and it apologizes for its silence in not expressing these sentiments sooner,” leaders said in a statement.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The college stripped Kligman of the achievement award.

“Though this apology is long overdue, it is no less heartfelt for the delay,” college leaders wrote.

Hornblum is a researcher, author, and activist who has dedicated much of his career to documenting cases of medical ethics violations. He worked in the Philadelphia prison system in the early 70s and saw evidence of the Holmesburg experiments firsthand.

“You were likely to see scores and scores of inmates with patches on their back and their arms, being part of all sorts of experiments, some innocuous, some quite dangerous,” he said. “They were really lab rats in every sense of the word, but they were human beings who were powerless.”

He said the college’s apology is significant because it recognizes how silence can preserve the status quo when harm is being done to others.

“They represent that entity that knew better, but never spoke up about it,” Hornblum said.

Other institutions and local leaders have issued apologies in recent years for the experiments at Holmesburg. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney condemned the exploitation of a vulnerable population and issued an apology to survivors on behalf of the city last October.

Leodus Jones was one of those survivors. He spent years as a community activist before he died in 2018. His daughter, Adrianne Jones-Alston, has taken up her father’s work and is a member of the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition.

Jones-Alston told WHYY’s Billy Penn in October that these public apologies are appreciated, and added that there’s more work to be done to address how people are impacted by medical racism and mass incarceration.

The College of Physicians has pledged to work with the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition to lead public discussions and awareness about the Holmesburg experiments “to ensure that no such practices recur in the future.”

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal