Lab Rats

A new book revisits shocking experiments on Pennsylvania prisoners

PHILADELPHIA—For two decades, a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine transformed a Philadelphia penitentiary into his personal laboratory. Albert Kligman, a world-famous dermatologist, conducted hundreds of experiments on inmates behind the walls of Holmesburg prison before a public outcry shut down his operation in 1974. Kligman's studies ranged from the seemingly harmless—tests of toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant—to the obviously risky, putting dioxin on prisoners' faces and having them consume mind-altering drugs. Along the way, he made millions of dollars from the pharmaceutical companies that financed his experiments.

One of Kligman's guinea pigs was Leodus Jones. When he crossed paths with Kligman in the 1960s, Jones was young and desperate for bail money. He could earn a mere 15 cents a day performing menial prison jobs like sewing trousers. Or he could become a test subject. Jones decided to join four experiments and earned close to $100 for letting researchers test chemicals on his feet, legs, arms, and back. Light and dark marks covered his body for several years afterward. Three decades later, Jones, now 55, still wonders what exactly he was exposed to and how it may have affected his and his children's health.

Now, a recently released exposé has sparked new interest in this controversial chapter of American medical history. Allen Hornblum's Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison; A True Story of Abuse and Exploitation in the Name of Medical Science is the first in-depth account of what may have been the nation's busiest human laboratory. Like Miss Evers' Boys, the recent film about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, Acres of Skin calls attention to the shocking forms that medical research has taken over the years. In the wake of this book's publication, the ACLU's Pennsylvania chapter is considering filing a lawsuit on behalf of those who participated in the Holmesburg experiments.

The villain in Acres of Skin is Kligman, best known for creating the skin cream Retin A, which he tested on Holmesburg prisoners. Prison officials initially recruited the dermatologist to help with an outbreak of athlete's foot. But when Kligman walked into Holmesburg, "All I saw before me were acres of skin," Kligman told a reporter in 1966. "It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time."

With easy access to this 1200-plus inmate population, Kligman had no trouble finding cheap volunteers for medical trials--or companies willing to pay him to test their products. Most inmates agreed to participate in the experiments, which generated millions of dollars in revenue for Kligman and the University of Pennsylvania. Kligman's long list of clients included Pfizer, Helena Rubenstein, Johnson & Johnson, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, and the U.S. Army.

Former inmates say the most common experiment was the "patch test." Researchers marked a gridon prisoners' backs and applied different lotions and ointments in each box. Then they stuck adhesive strips and gauze pads on the men's backs. "Guys looked like zebras when the patchescame off," a retired guard recalls in Acres of Skin. Today, at neighborhood pools in Philadelphia, former Holmesburg inmates can still identify one another by the designs on their backs.

Ugly scars were hardly the only side effects of Kligman's studies. When Roy Williams agreed to test shampoo, his hair started falling out. "I didn't really have a dandruff problem, but I did after that test," Williams said to Hornblum."The lotion removed my hair and anything else on my head."

Researchers told inmates little about the experiments. So prisoners quizzed fellow inmates who worked with the doctors in order to learn which tests were safest. Word on the prison grapevine was that Kligman's most dangerous studies took place inside the trailers parked at the prison. There, Kligman tested mind-altering drugs for the U.S. Army--even though this was far outside his specialty of dermatology.

One test subject was Johnnie Williams. Researchers gave him an injection, put him in a padded cell, and videotaped him. "Almost immediately I felt affected," Williams says in Acres of Skin. "I couldn't control myself and I told them to get this shit out of me."

Williams began hallucinating. He ripped the toilet out of the floor and the cell door off its hinges. The drug's effects lasted for years, Williams believes. "I had been a guy who tried to avoid arguments," he told Hornblum, "but after the tests . . . I went from petty thievery and busting into cars to shootings and assaults. I had major problems after the tests. [They] made me violent."

Hornblum first learned about Kligman's experiments in 1971, when he was a 23-year-old literacy instructor at Holmesburg. He still remembers the shock he felt as he watched inmates walking around with gauze stuck to their backs. "You had an incarcerated population in a totalitarian atmosphere," Hornblum said in a recent interview. "The prison population at that point was overwhelmingly African American--about 85 per cent--and the education level was pitiful. You didn't have to be a bioethicist to know this is a recipe for disaster."

Still haunted by his memories of Holmesburg more than 20 years later, Hornblum decided to investigate. A longtime prison reform advocate, Hornblum was working as the chief of staff in the city sheriff's office in 1993. He quit his job, moved in with his mother, and began making daily trips to the University of Pennsylvania's medical library.

Next Page »