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Holmesburg Prison
The City of Philadelphia has apologized for the human experiments that happened at Holmesburg prison between the 50s and 70s. Photo: Wikicommons

Philly recently apologized for experiments at Holmesburg Prison. What happened there?

Starting in the 1950s through the 1970s, inmates at Holmesburg Prison were used as test subjects for a number of experimental pharmaceutical products.

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On Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, the city of Philadelphia issued a formal apology for experiments carried out by the University of Pennsylvania at Holmesburg Prison from the 1950s through the 1970s.

In that timeframe, an inmate population of predominantly Black men were exposed to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos and dioxin — a component of Agent Orange, which affected whole generations after its use by U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

“While this happened many decades ago, we know that the historical impact and trauma of this practice of medical racism has extended for generations — all the way through to the present day,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement accompanying the apology. “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.”

The experiments at Holmesburg are well-documented in the 1998 investigative book Acres of Skin by Allen Hornblum, a former prison worker and chief of staff at the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office. 

Hornblum’s experience at the prison started in the 1970s, as he directed an adult literacy program. When he arrived, Hornblum noticed an unusually high number of inmates wrapped in adhesive tape and sporting gauze pads. 

Later investigation led Hornblum to discover that those with the medical dressings were test subjects of Penn dermotologist Albert Kligman, who carried out a number of dermatological experiments on inmates between 1951 and 1974. 

Acres of Skin focuses mainly on the experiments carried out by Kligman on the predominantly Black inmate population. The book’s title is even a reference to a direct quote from Kligman reacting to seeing the hundreds of prisoners when he first entered Holmesburg Prison.

“All I saw before me were acres of skin,” Kligman reportedly said. “It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.”

Upon its release in 1998, Hornblum’s book garnered international acclaim, and is now considered a foundational work in medical ethics. 

The University of Pennsylvania finally sunset a lectureship named after Kligman and renamed a professorship in his honor last year, in an announcement from its school of medicine.

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