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Philadelphia apologizes for ‘inhumane’ Holmesburg Prison experiments


October 07, 2022

2 min read

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The city of Philadelphia has issued a formal apology for the experiments conducted by the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison from the 1950s to 1970s, according to a press release.

These experiments intentionally exposed incarcerated inmates at the prison to various pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos and dioxin, a component of Agent Orange. According to the release, the majority of these inmates were Black men, and many of them were illiterate.

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The City of Philadelphia has issued a formal apology for the experiments conducted by the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison during the 1950s to 1970s.

“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 the release. “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.”

According to a statement issued in August 2021 by J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, the dean of Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the experiments at Holmesburg Prison were led by the late Albert M. Kligman, MD, PhD, who was a long-standing faculty member in the school’s department of dermatology.

“Historical events such as these research projects can have a long legacy, and can lead to enduring mistrust and painful memories. Learning from our history can also inform current and future practices,” Jameson said in the school-issued statement.

Penn Medicine made changes to how the school recognizes Kligman’s legacy, including sunsetting his annual named lectureship; renaming his professorship in honor of Bernett L. Johnson Jr., MD, a long-time Black faculty member in the department of dermatology and chief medical officer of the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; and establishing the Research Funding for Diversity and Equity in Dermatologic Research, Education and Care.

“To the families and loved ones across generations who have been impacted by this deplorable chapter in our city’s history, we are hopeful this formal apology brings you at least a small measure of closure,” Kenney said in the press release. “Recognizing the deep distrust experiments like this have created in our communities of color, we vow to continue to fight the inequities and disparities that continue to this day.”

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