Lab Rats

A new book revisits shocking experiments on Pennsylvania prisoners

The Holmesburg experiments were difficult to research, however. For starters, Kligman had destroyed all his records after national publicity led to the closing of his laboratory. Jessica Mitford's 1973 exposé, Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business, led to a ban on the nationwide practice of using inmates as guinea pigs. When Hornblum decided to dig up the truth about Kligman's involvement, he found dozens of former inmates who wanted to talk but knew virtually nothing about what they had been exposed to. And when Hornblum phoned doctors who had worked for Kligman, almost all of them hung up or cursed him out.

Eventually, by combining inmate interviews with documents he got under the Freedom of Information Act, Hornblum was able to piece together Acres of Skin. Still, he wonders how much has yet to be uncovered. Bernard Ackerman, who studied under Kligman and now heads the Institute for Dermatopathology at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College, believes there is much more to this tale. "Hornblum really only scratched the surface, but through no fault of his own," Ackerman says. "He got no cooperation."

Near the end of his reporting, Hornblum telephoned Kligman, who is now 82 and a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Kligman spoke for only 20 minutes before cutting off the interview. "All we did . . . is offer them money for a little piece of their skin," Kligman said. He insisted his tests were innocuous, railed against the "liberals" and "do-gooders" who had opposed him, and bashed critics who compared his prison experiments to the work of Nazi doctors. "I'm Jewish!" he said. "It struck me as ludicrous and incredible that I'd be compared to that."

The University of Pennsylvania released a statement defending Kligman's work, which read in part, "In the 1950s and 1960s, the use of willing, compensated prisoners for biomedical research was a commonly accepted practice by this nation's scientists." Nevertheless, Hornblum opens Acres of Skin with the Nuremberg Code, which was written after the Holocaust to ensure that doctors never again exploited powerless populations in the name of medical advancement. "What took place at Holmesburg is not on the same plane as what took place at Auschwitz, but it is on the same continuum," Hornblum says. At Holmesburg, "they weren't using kids at fancy prep schools. They weren't using the string section of the Philadelphia orchestra. They were using prisoners like lab rats. The inmates were brought out for a short period of time, they were experimented on, and then they were forgotten about."

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