Hundreds have signed a Police Free Penn petition calling on Penn President Amy Gutmann and the University to address the harmful medical experiments done on Philadelphia prison inmates conducted by the late Penn dermatologist Albert Kligman.
Between 1951 and 1974, Kligman performed medical experiments on thousands of inmates in Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison without any formal consent. Many of the inmates were left with lifelong side effects including permanent scarring, recurrent rashes, swelling of the hands and feet, and mental health issues, according to journalist Allen Hornblum's book "Acres of Skin," which exposed Kligman's medical experiments on the inmates.
From these experiments, Kligman was able to create and patent commercial dermatological products, most notably Retin-A and Renova, two popular acne and anti-aging creams. Kligman donated at least $15 million to the University's dermatology department from the royalties made from Retin-A.
The petition demands a formal apology from Gutmann to the victims and their families and financial reparations for those affected by the experiments. The petition also asks for a complete disclosure of all profits Kligman and the University made from the experiments, a removal of Kligman's name from all Penn-related entities, and the inclusion of Kligman's experiments as part of the Perelman School of Medicine's curriculum on medical ethics.
“Penn must apologize directly to the victims and their families for this harm," the petition reads. "It is shameful that Penn President Amy Gutmann publishes books on bioethics and healthcare, while this university continues to profit from unethical medical research and the prison industrial complex.”
Adrianne Jones-Alston, a formerly incarcerated activist whose father was an inmate experimented on by Kligman, is at the forefront of the protests against Penn's ties to Kligman. She recounted in The Philadelphia Inquirer how her father, the late Leodus Jones, was affected by the Kligman experiments.
"I remember when I was around age 5, my father’s behavior and appearance after his incarceration and Kligman’s guinea pig experiments changed dramatically," she wrote. "His skin smelled burnt and his back gradually took on the appearance of a map."
Jones-Alston began demanding justice for the victims of the experiments when two professors looking into Kligman’s legacy reached out to her, she said, adding that she felt compelled to get involved after seeing an outpour of support for the victims of the experiments.
Penn faculty and students have also demanded that the University denounce Kligman and apologize for the harm that he caused.
Assistant professor of Clinical Dermatology Jules Lipoff co-authored articles calling for Penn to cut ties with Kligman in the Journal of the American Medical Association and in the Inquirer in November 2020 and January 2021, respectively.
“[Kligman] is undoubtedly one of the most significant and important figures in modern dermatology, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't interrogate and consider his legacy, his impact, and what we should learn from how he practiced,” Lipoff said.
Jones-Alston echoed these sentiments, noting that the focus of the efforts should be on the victims and Penn's involvement.
“Penn has to look at the reality of the fact of the person that they're supporting,” Jones-Alston said. “To me, he was a very intelligent and well-versed doctor. He created a great product. He did something good that had a powerful impact on society down to this day. But people were harmed.”
2018 Nursing graduate Valerie Bai, a registered nurse at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center and a member of Police Free Penn, said that she felt ashamed to learn of Kligman's legacy and Penn's lack of acknowledgement of the harm it was complicit in.
“It feels really wrong, as someone who has been a part of this institution, to learn that it's been doing all of these terrible things,” Bai said. “I think it's not only my duty as a medical professional, but as someone who has access to the resources and wealth of this university. It's only right to speak truth to those powers and say, ‘You've got to do better.'”
In May, Bai helped organize #PennReparationsNow, a march that called for Penn to make reparations and apologize to the victims of the experiments and their families. The march was followed by an outdoor screening of 2019 School of Design graduate Carolyn Lazard’s film "Pre-Existing Condition," which explores the history of Kligman’s experiments and Penn’s complicity.
Jones-Alston said she fully supports Police Free Penn's demands, adding that she believes the victims and their descendants are owed financial compensation from the University because of the profit Penn made at the expense of the experiment’s victims.
“My father's skin is on shelves and in stores, his skin is in people's medicine cabinets. They're still reaping the benefits of what happened,” Jones-Alston said. “So why not share the wealth? Why not at least give the children and grandchildren some type of college tuition or something [like that]?”
Jones-Alston added that she sees justice for Kligman's victims as an opportunity for collaboration between Penn and the Philadelphia community in light of recent controversies, including the Penn Museum's Samuel George Morton Collection and the use of the bones of a MOVE bombing victim in an online course.
Bai said that the petition's demands are just the first of many steps that the University can take to seek justice for the West Philadelphia community.
“Financial compensation is one of the very first steps that Penn can take very easily with its billions and billions of dollars in the endowment,” Bai said. “It would be one step in a long series of steps towards reckoning with Penn's history of racism and abuse of its power as an institution. Ultimately, it would be something that would benefit the victims by listening to them and doing what is right by them.”