PHILADELPHIA—The city of Philadelphia recently issued a long overdue apology for the unethical experiments a University of Pennsylvania faculty member performed on Black inmates for decades at Holmesburg Prison between the 1950s and 1970s. The faculty member, Dr. Albert Kligman, has become known as “the Frankenstein of Holmesburg” for his experimental use of cosmetics, pesticides, mind-altering drugs, and radiation on hundreds of unwitting inmates.
Some of the Black inmates were even paid to have dyes injected into their scalps and faces. The experiments left many of the men with permanent physical and psychological damage.
Dr. Kligman claimed that the experiments were necessary to find new treatments for acne, psoriasis, and other skin conditions. However, his actions caused lasting harm to the men who were subjected to them and serves as a cautious reminder of the atrocities committed against Black people in the name of science.
Considering the city’s official apology, which was issued on October 6, questions remain if an apology is enough for what these men suffered and endured that impacted their lives and the lives of their families.
An important step, but justice still needed
The University of Pennsylvania has a long and dark history of unethical medical treatment of Black people, dating all the way back to the 19th century. Early students at Penn’s medical school dissected cadavers that were stolen from Black burial grounds. They were also taught that Black people were “naturally inferior” to Whites because of features like the size of their skulls as documented in a recently published Philadelphia Inquirer article.
The city’s apology is an important step in acknowledging the pain that was inflicted on these men, and in ensuring that such experimentation will never be permitted again.
“Without excuse, we formally and officially extend a sincere apology to those who were subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse. 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,” Mayor Jim Kenny said.
Despite these experiments taking place decades ago, Mayor Kenney also noted medical racism experienced by these inmates continues to affect them today.
The apology was in response to a request made by the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition. “We respectfully urge your attention to this matter and request at least some sort of preliminary response, preferably prior to our press conference on Oct. 8, 2022, at the Holmesburg Prison wall,” the group said in a written letter to the city.
“By the way, we selected that Oct. 8 date because the Tuskegee experiment began sometime in October. And we will be holding a press conference on that date at 12 p.m. outside Holmesburg Prison at 8215 Torresdale Avenue,” the letter stated in part. Holmesburg was nicknamed, “The Terrordome.”
Key members of the coalition that led the effort to secure an apology granted interviews to The Final Call. They discussed the importance of the apology and what it meant for the City of Philadelphia. While some expressed satisfaction with the outcome, others cautioned that much work still needed to be done to bring about true justice. Those interviewed shed light on the complex range of reactions to the city’s apology and the ongoing fight for justice for the families of those who were used in the experiments.
Regarding research and history on medical experimentation on Holmesburg inmates, Mr. Allen Hornblum has extensive experience. Besides being a former criminal justice official and college professor, he has written eight books, including “Acres of Skin” in 1998 and “Sentenced to Science” in 2007.
During an extremely detailed phone interview conducted with The Final Call, Mr. Allen said he appreciated Mayor Kenny’s involvement and the promptness to the request and demand for an apology.
“I did not think it would come that quickly. We do appreciate it. We are in discussions with members of city council, and we have indications that something similar will be happening there. We are also looking at some other targets,” he said.
According to Mr. Hornblum, Dr. Klingman’s experiments on patients in the prison was one of the most egregious examples of unethical medical research in American history.
What is even more horrifying is that he was able to get away with it for so long, thanks in part to his position of power and influence. The fact that Dr. Klingman was able to recruit top medical students by telling them there was “acres of skin” available for their experiments speaks to the culture of impunity that existed at the time. It is a chilling reminder of how easily abuses can occur when there is no accountability.
“And he did it so well for so long that I don’t believe the phenomenon can be matched in America,” Mr Hornblum said.
“So if you were Dow Chemical in Michigan and had a conundrum in the manufacturing of an herbicide that was causing a breakout of chloracne amongst the workers, and you wanted to solve the riddle, or if you were the U.S. Army’s chemical core, who needed test subjects because they were running short of soldiers in their hallucinogenic studies, or if you were RJ Reynolds in the South doing tobacco studies, you knew there was a doctor in Philly and a university and a prison system that you could go to, knock on the door, send a piece of mail, proffer a piece of protocol, be willing to pay a price,” he explained.
“And I don’t know of a case where Klingman turned them down. So, in my mind, it is not only unique but egregious, what happened here.”
By 2000, close to 300 former prisoners who reported injuries from the experiments sued the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Kligman, Dow Chemical and Johnson & Johnson for injuries they said occurred during the experiments at Holmesburg, but the suit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired, reported the New York Times in a 2006 article. But the plaintiffs continued to press their case.
Meanwhile, Dr. Kligman continued to receive accolades for his advancements in dermatology.
Adrianne Jones-Alston is a prison reform activist and the daughter of one of the Holmesburg inmate test subjects, Leodus Jones. In 2018, her father passed away at the age of 74. He had founded Community Assistance for Prisoners and testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington about what he described as “guinea pig tests” on Holmesburg inmates. Ms. Jones-Alston has continued her father’s work, fighting for prison reform and justice. She is a powerful voice for change, and her work is an inspiration to many.
“I cannot even begin to describe (the apology as) sincerity because it really doesn’t have any emotion attached to it. I’m appreciative to hear it from the mayoral office because my father wanted to hear them apologize as well as the University of Penn. I appreciate them saying that because we needed, I needed to hear that coming from that office. It’s kind of a mixed emotional thing if you understand what I’m saying. I’m appreciative, but then I know there is also politics attached to it,” she said.
In terms of the impact the experimentation had on her father and family, Ms. Jones-Alston said it was devastating. She recounted how her father was never the same after he returned from prison. “He was a shell of his former self. He was paranoid, angry, and violent,” she said.
“As a child, I never understood my father’s anger. It was only later, after learning about the experiments, that I began to see how his experience had shaped his life. And that’s why I’m angry. Because now I understand what he went through and how it contributed to his behavior,” Jones-Alston explained.
“I’m angry about it because people always ask me, well, what do reparations look like for you? And I don’t know what to say about that. Because when you talk about money, people grab their purses and say, ‘I’m not giving them nothing.’ My daddy’s skin is in them jars. Y’all know what y’all caused in my household? Those experiments contributed to my downward spiral in life. My daddy turning over our dinner table and your kids going to Harvard. And it’s not just about money. It’s about acknowledgment and accountability. It’s about making things right.”
The fight for justice continues
As a result of the racial reckoning of 2020, the city of Philadelphia apologized slowly. Dr. Kligman’s honorifics and professorships were challenged by two dermatologists, including one from Penn.
Penn Medicine apologized for Dr. Kligman’s experiments a year after the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology published its call to action.
The Milbank Fund set up a memorial fund to provide financial assistance to the families of the men who had been involved in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. However, no such apology or compensation has been forthcoming from the pharmaceutical companies that benefited from the Holmesburg experiments.
Ms. Jones-Alston pointed out that the pharmaceutical companies who raked in millions if not billions of dollars as the result of Klingman’s experiments and to the detriment of these Black men, should follow the example of the Milbank Fund and apologize for their involvement in these unethical experiments. Furthermore, they should provide financial assistance to the families of the men who were affected.
She has set up her own nonprofit called the Jones Foundation for Returning Citizens in Virginia. The organization works with halfway houses to find beds for parolees. Ms. Jones-Alston is a former parolee and she knows firsthand the difficulties that returning citizens face in finding housing. The Jones Foundation provides support and resources to help returning citizens transition back into society.
Attorney Michael Coard, who was instrumental in the city’s apology as a member of the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition, told The Final Call in a written statement that, “The City Council, District Attorney’s Office and Common Pleas Court/Municipal court (as well as other guilty entities) must do as the Mayor did in our demand when he formally and unconditionally apologized for the city’s exploitation of Holmesburg Prison inmates.”
He noted that the victims were overwhelmingly Black and were victims of excruciating skin patch tests, cruel radioactive isotope studies, pernicious diet studies, sadistic chemical warfare experiments and heinous mind control experiments. Atty. Coard said that these monstrous crimes were perpetrated by a largely White scientific establishment that considered Black people to be inferior and expendable.
The Final Call reached out to Dow Pharmaceuticals but did not receive a response by press time.
Mr. Hornblum noted the Muslims from the Nation of Islam who were incarcerated at Holmesburg did not participate in Kligman’s experiments. The fact that the Muslim prisoners refused to take part in these experiments is a testament to their strong beliefs, convictions and leadership, Mr. Hornblum concluded.
The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his National Representative, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, have warned Black people about the depopulation plan at the hands of the U.S. government and Big Pharma to kill Black, Indigenous and poor people. The history of medical apartheid inflicted on Black people in America and abroad, inside and outside of prisons further bears witness to this divine warning.
“Killing off tens of hundreds of thousands of people in Third World nations, because those nations trust the scholars and scientists of the Western world, White people, who claim to want to ‘help’ them. While there are many White people who are sincere, they are the ‘fronts’ that are used to open the door for the insincere Satanic Mind to enter, to practice evil under a claimed ‘noble motive,’” Minister Farrakhan stated in a message from Part 37 of his monumental lecture series, “The Time and What Must Be Done,” in 2013.
“Remember the words of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad when he spoke of the scientists that use such poison on human beings. Elijah Muhammad said they either want to: 1.) ‘minimize the birth rates’ of human beings, or 2.) ‘cause the extinction of a people.’ That is very serious, for both of these are a part of ‘The Convention on Genocide,’” the Minister said.