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The City of Philadelphia apologized for unethical experiments at the Holmesburg Prison.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

The City of Philadelphia has formally apologized for experiments conducted by Penn at the Holmesburg Prison from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Researchers at Penn deliberately exposed Holmesburg prison inmates — the majority of whom were Black – to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos, and dioxin, according to a press release sent on Oct. 6 from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to the City of Philadelphia that apologized to individuals affected by the experiments. The press release condemned the experiments as “unethical practices” and labeled them as a “tragic example” of medical experimentation on people of color, many of whom were illiterate. 

“​​[I]t was wrong to exploit this vulnerable population,” the press release reads. 

In his apology, Kenney wrote that the trauma of medical racism from experiments like the ones at Holmesburg Prison persisted for generations. He added that the City of Philadelphia would continue to fight against and rectify the inequities and disparities in communities of color.

This apology comes after years of efforts by formerly incarcerated people to fight against the unethical practices. In 2000, approximately 300 formerly incarcerated people filed a group lawsuit against the University, Johnson & Johnson, Dow Chemical Company, and Dermatology Professor Emeritus Albert Kligman, the head of the studies, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported in 2002

The plaintiffs stated how they were paid to participate in several dermatological studies from 1951 to 1974 that tested  many skin care drugs. Many prisoners, at their most vulnerable state, agreed to the testing to save enough money for bail. Inmates involved in the suit thought that the testing later harmed their health, with many of them believing that they had been exposed to infectious diseases, psychotropic drugs, and radioactive isotopes, the DP reported.

Although the lawsuit was dropped, there were petitions to the University and former Penn President Amy Gutmann that financial reparations should be paid to the victims, the DP reported in June 2021. Kligman developed patents for two popular dermatological products from these experiments, Retin-A and Renova, that make millions of dollars in royalties. 

In 2019, Penn Medicine convened a faculty committee to examine the legacy of Kligman at the University. Its recommendations, announced in 2021, included phasing out an annual lecture named for Kligman, renaming the Kligman Professorship, and committing funds to dermatology research focused on racial diversity and equity. When asked for comment on the City's apology, a Penn Medicine spokesperson referred to the 2021 statement.

With Penn’s billions of dollars in its endowment — as well as royalties donated to the Dermatology Department from Kligman's dermatology products — many believe that financial compensation is the first step in addressing the harm to the victims, even if the late Kligman created great products and was one of “the most important figures in modern dermatology,” former assistant professor of Clinical Dermatology Jules Lipoff told the DP in June 2021.

"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," Kenney wrote in his apology.

Administration reporter Elizabeth Meisenzahl contributed reporting to this article.