The city of Philadelphia has made a formal apology for unethical medical experiments that were performed on Black prisoners for decades.
On Thursday, the city of Philadelphia made a public formal apology to those affected by unethical medical experiments conducted on them at the Holmesburg Prison for over two decades. “Without excuse, we formally and officially extend a sincere apology to those who were subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse,” said Mayor Jim Kenney in the statement. “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.”
Many pointed to the persistent work of community activists and the families of former inmates in bringing this moment to bear. The experiments at the prison, which was nicknamed “The Terrordome”, were conducted by Dr. Albert Kligman, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Kligman, who’d go on to be considered a pioneer of modern dermatology and develop the widely used topical cream Retin-A, was allowed to expose the predominately Black inmates to viruses, funguses, pharmaceuticals, LSD, and asbestos along with dioxin, a component found in the biochemical weapon Agent Orange.
The experiments took place from the 1950s into the 1970s, with over 300 inmates who were paid after signing forms that removed liability from the labs, the hospital, and Holmesburg for any complications. Many had no knowledge of what they were exposed to, having been drawn to the situation due to needing the money for bail, and many being illiterate.
Investigative reporting done by the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s showed that Kligman who worked in collaboration with the U.S. Army and with Dow Chemical Co. Kligman, who died in 2010, would be quoted in a book about the experiments, saying: “All I saw before me were acres of skin…It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.”
That observation would lead to the book being titled Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison. A group of surviving inmates filed a lawsuit against Kligman and the University of Penn in 2000, but it was tossed due to a statute of limitations. Last year, the university issued its own formal apology and removed Kligman’s name from certain honorifics there.