Archive for Thursday, October 19, 2000

Philadelphia inmates sue about medical experiments

October 19, 2000


— Allen Hornblum's first job out of graduate school in 1971 was teaching literacy at Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison.

Inside the imposing walls, he says he was shocked to see dozens of inmates with adhesive tape on their faces, their arms and their backs.

At first he thought there had been a knife fight, but he soon learned that the bandages betrayed widespread medical experiments that had gone on for 23 years inside the city-run prison.

Hornblum's 1998 book, "Acres of Skin," explored the physical and psychological effects of the testing and inspired a lawsuit filed this week in Philadelphia on behalf of 298 former inmates.

The lawsuit claims the testing exposed the inmates to infectious diseases, radiation, dioxin and psychotropic drugs all without their informed consent.

It names as defendants the city of Philadelphia; Dr. Albert Kligman, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who conducted much of the research and is credited with developing the acne and anti-wrinkle treatment Retin A; the university; and drug makers Johnson & Johnson and the Dow Chemical Co., whose products were allegedly used on inmates.

Kligman, who is now in his 80s but keeps an office at the university, did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Johnson & Johnson confirmed that it had tested cosmetic and skin-care products on inmates at Holmsburg during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But it said none of the ingredients cited in the part of the lawsuit it had seen were used in the company's products.

Using inmates for testing was common practice during the 1950s and 1960s, but it is now frowned on by the university, University of Pennsylvania spokeswoman Rebecca Harmon said.

While medical testing took place in other prisons, Holmesburg was well-known among scientists because of Kligman's research and because of the prison's willingness to have its inmates tested in exchange for annual fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hornblum said.

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