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The College of Physicians of Philadelphia issued a formal apology for its affiliation with Penn dermatology professor Albert Kligman, who experimented on inmates at the Holmesburg Prison.

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia issued a formal apology for its affiliation with the Penn doctor who experimented on inmates at the Holmesburg Prison. 

Between 1951 and 1974, Penn dermatology professor Albert Kligman conducted medical experiments on incarcerated individuals — most of whom were Black — without their informed consent. He tested viruses, fungi, and chemical agents like asbestos on hundreds of incarcerated individuals at the now-decommissioned Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia. 

Kligman was a fellow of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia — one of the oldest medical societies in the country, and he received their Distinguished Achievement Award in 2003 while former inmates stood outside the building in Center City in protest

The organization apologized for its association with Kligman and rescinded his award last Wednesday, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. 

“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,” the organization said in a statement.  

The statement follows a formal apology from the City of Philadelphia in October 2022 for the prison’s “disgraceful and unethical” experimentation on the city’s vulnerable populations and communities of color. 

Until his death in 2010, Kligman was known for his significant contributions to the field of dermatology, most notably his invention of the acne treatment product Retin-A. He donated $15 million in Retin-A royalties to Penn Dermatology. 

In the past few years, Penn community members have called for the University to address the legacy of Kligman’s medical experiments.  

In May 2021, Police Free Penn organized a march and film screening to demand that Penn apologize and be held accountable for Kligman’s ethical wrongdoing. 

A month later, hundreds of members of the Penn community signed a petition asking for a formal apology from then-Penn President Amy Gutmann, a disclosure of the University’s and Kligman’s profits from the experiments, and financial reparations to the victims and their families. 

The petition also asked for the removal of Kligman's name from all Penn entities and the inclusion of Kligman's experiments as part of the Perelman School of Medicine's curriculum on ethics. 

Penn Medicine released a statement later that year recognizing the “serious ethical concerns” of Kligman’s work and apologizing for the pain it caused to the incarcerated individuals and their families. Penn Medicine also announced the renaming of the Kligman Professorship, the elimination of a lectureship in his name, and the redirecting of funds toward dermatology research in diversity and equity. 

The College of Physicians stated in its statement that it is committed to working with the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition to continue the healing process, according to PhillyVoice. The organization pledged to raise public awareness about the Holmesburg experiments so that “no such practices recur in the future.”