The City of Philadelphia apologized Thursday for the unethical medical experiments performed on mostly black inmates at Holmesburg Prison from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The move comes after community activists and families of some of those inmates expressed the need for a formal apology. It also follows a series of apologies from several US cities over historically racist policies or misconduct in the wake of the nationwide racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The city allowed University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Albert Kligman, to conduct the dermatological, biochemical and pharmaceutical experiments that deliberately exposed approximately 300 inmates to viruses, fungi, asbestos and chemical agents, including dioxin – a component of Agent Orange. The vast majority of Kligman’s experiments were conducted on black men, many of whom were awaiting trial and trying to save money for bail, and many of whom were illiterate, the city said.
Kligman, who would go on to pioneer the acne and wrinkle treatment Retin-A, died in 2010. Many of the former inmates are said to have lifelong scars and health problems from the experiments. A group of detainees filed a lawsuit against the university and Kligman in 2000, which was eventually dismissed due to a statute of limitations.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in his apology that the experiments exploited a vulnerable population and that the impact of that medical racism has extended over generations.
“Without apology, we formally and officially offer our sincere apologies to those who have been victims of this inhumane and horrific abuse. We are also sorry it took too long to hear these words,” Kenney wrote.
Last year, the University of Pennsylvania issued a formal apology and took Kligman’s name off some honorary titles, such as an annual lecture series and a professorship. The university also directed research funds to fellows who focused on dermatological problems in people of color.