Inmates Sue Over Medical Studies
|By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - 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. The university declined to comment on the lawsuit, and officials for the city and Dow Chemical did not immediately return telephone calls. 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. Most of the inmates involved were black men and relatively uneducated. "There are men who do have cancer, severe lung problems, all sorts of maladies,'' Hornblum said "I am not a doctor, so I can't confirm that there is a direct linkage. You need to have some serious epidemiological studies, but no one has ever been interested.''
The inmates' attorney, Thomas Nocella, said the inmates received only a dollar or two a day to be used as subjects for lucrative commercial product testing. Since they did not know what drugs they were being given, they could not have given informed consent, even if they signed waivers, he said. "As human beings, they want an apology for being treated the way they were treated back then. Secondly, they want some kind of assurance that medical treatment will be available to them,'' Nocella said.
The lawsuit, filed Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, seeks $50,000 in damages from each defendant. The medical testing at Holmesburg began in 1951 and didn't end until 1974, when it was banned, said Hornblum, now an adjunct professor at Temple University. The ban was prompted by congressional hearings into allegedly coerced medical experimentation, including Tuskegee University tests that infected black men with syphilis. A few Holmesburg inmates sued the university and the city in 1984, and settled for sums in The $20,000 to $40,000 range. Holmesburg was closed in 1995.