Source: Wire Pubdate: Fri, 28 Aug 1998

Chronicle of Higher Education Research & Publishing July 24, 1998 Author: Kamilah Duggins


Temple U. Professor's Book Exposes How Scientists Used Prisoners

Allen Hornblum remembers clearly the hot September day in 1971 when he arrived at Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison. He had come to teach literacy classes. What the 23-year-old found was not just inmates who needed tutoring, but scores of men whose skin was blotched with bandages and adhesive tape.

Large white patches on the chests, backs, and arms of the prisoners -- most of them black -- raised a simple question in Mr. Hornblum's head. What was wrong with these men?

The answer was not straightforward.

For the previous 20 years, Mr. Hornblum discovered, a University of Pennsylvania medical professor and dermatologist, fully backed by the university, had used the prison as his laboratory, and the inmates as his guinea pigs. The inmates had been used for a wide range of clinical experiments on consumer products, including deodorant and athlete's-foot medications, as well as for military experiments on the impact of chemical weapons.

Mr. Hornblum was told at the time that the prisoners were paid for participating, and that they could opt out of the experiments at any time. Still, the scenario seemed inhumane to Mr. Hornblum. In 1993, 20 years after he first walked into the prison, he came back -- this time as an adjunct professor of political science at Temple University -- to document the story of the Holmesburg experiments.

The result is his new book, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison, just published by Routledge.

"Holmesburg Prison was one of the largest human research factories in the U.S. I found that between 1951 and 1974, 79 to 85 per cent of a 1,200-1,400 population of largely black men were tested," he says. "They tested more people on more protocols than any other place in the U.S."

The experiments were run by Albert Kligman, a Penn professor who was called by prison officials when inmates suffered an outbreak of athlete's foot in 1951. When he arrived, he saw "acres of skin before him," he told a reporter in 1966, "like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time."

Compared to the 15 cents a day the prisoners earned sewing pants, Dr. Kligman's pay of as much as $60 per month for the use of a patch of their skin, was much more lucrative.

"Holmesburg was a county jail, so many of the men saw this as a way to raise bail money, pay for attorney's fees, provide money for their wives or girlfriends, or to just buy cigarettes or a piece of cake," Dr. Hornblum says.

People like Withers Ponton, who were subject to the most common patch test, still complain of scars and bad memories. The test involved creating a 20-block grid on the shoulder or back of an inmate with adhesive tape. In the squares the test cream or lotion would be applied, and the skin was then exposed to a sun lamp for up to 30 minutes. That was followed by an inspection for blistering.

This was repeated every day for 30 days. In an interview, Mr. Ponton, who is serving a life sentence, told Mr. Hornblum that he went through over 50 tests in 40 months.

As the book recounts, Dr. Kligman, who became famous for his discovery of the facial cream Retin-A, quickly moved beyond dermatology. Among those who sponsored his experiments at the prison were the Army, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and Johnson & Johnson.

"Kligman was as much an entrepreneur as he was a researcher. He discovered what I later found out, that Holmesburg was the Macy's and Gimbel's of human experimentation," Mr. Hornblum says.

Dr. Kligman's operation continued until 1974, when it was shut down following a series of reports in the local press, which had been sensitized to the issue by the revelations in 1972 about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

"It was a confluence of many things happening," Mr. Hornblum explains, "The Tuskegee study was exposed in 1972. There was a rise in inmate lawsuits against the university and city, and there was a movement in the medical profession where doctors were speaking up and renouncing the experiments that were taking place."

Mr. Hornblum says that the heightened public awareness of the experiments at the prison could lead to a "very explosive" class-action suit against the prison, the local government, and the University of Pennsylvania. The American Civil Liberties Union is currently studying whether to revive the case, even though some inmates brought suits years ago.

Acres of Skin reflects Mr. Hornblum's career in academe and law enforcement. He has been a professor, first at Drexel University and then at Temple, since 1982, teaching political science and urban studies. He has also been chief of staff to the Philadelphia Sheriff's office. That background was important in his research, he says.

When Mr. Hornblum began to approach them, many of the doctors who had worked under Dr. Kligman would scream at him for raising the issue, hang up on him, or speak only with a lawyer present.

The inmates and former inmates wanted to help, but they were knowledgable only about the surface of the experiments and didn't know the details beyond what they had been told and personally experienced. In the end, much of the information came from federal records filed by the groups sponsoring the experiments.

Dr. Kligman, who is now 82, did speak with him, Mr. Hornblum says, defending his experiments and saying that the practices were not unusual at that time.

Penn and Dr. Kligman have jointly defended the projects since the book came out, but have refused to talk about them in any detail. Richard L. Tennan, senior vice-dean of the medical school, agrees that the experiments were inhumane, but notes that standards were different at the time and says that many discoveries on skin diseases were made as a result of the tests.

Mr. Hornblum has a different view. "It would be nice if the University of Pennsylvania admitted to this practice that probably violated every code of ethics medicine has ever seen, especially No. 1 of the Nuremberg Code, which says that those in a restrained environment should not be tested on because they are members of a totalitarian environment and cannot exercise free will."

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education Date: 07/24/98 Section: Research & Publishing Page: A7