Hiba H., Karishma L. & Mark R. | Penn faces legacy of dermatologist Albert Kligman
This is part of a series on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. In their columns, members of the Penn community assess slavery, Penn’s relationship with it, and how it informs our understanding of the race today.
Medical institutions have a long and terrible history of abuse and exploitation of the black community in the United States. This is not surprising and it is also the reasonable and rational response that following these abuses, the black community has often been wary of these institutions. In addition, the pandemic has only served to exacerbate racial health disparities. Due to a history of abuse and exploitation, the black community in the United States has rightly cultivated a deep-rooted mistrust of medical institutions, and the pandemic has only served to exacerbate and to highlight the health disparities underlying this mistrust.
On June 17, as we commemorate the emancipation of slaves in the United States, it is crucial that institutions reflect and address how they perpetuate the oppression of the black community so that they can rise up and prove that ‘they deserve the trust of the community. While Penn’s connections to systemic racism run deep, one specific story that Penn has yet to adequately address is the legacy of Dr. Albert Kligman, a dermatologist at Penn who has conducted experiments on incarcerated men, mostly black, in Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Kligman is best known as the inventor of the popular acne drug Retin-A. His research was not therapeutic, as it sought to test commercial cosmetics, dermatological drugs and infections on the skin of inmates without providing any direct benefit and in fact risking harm to their health. He did not limit his research to mild tests; controversially, he undertook experiments that exposed inmates to infectious diseases and chemicals. Most notably, one of his experiments exposed inmates to dioxin, a carcinogen and a component of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant infamously used during the Vietnam War, as detailed in Allen Hornblum’s 1998 book. , Acres of Skin. Inmates were paid for their participation, but given their limited opportunities to earn money and the fact that many had not been convicted and jailed because they could not pay bail, these financial incentives were inherently coercive. In the prison context, inmates lacked autonomy, so informed consent to participate was not possible. The 1973 Senate hearings led by Senator Ted Kennedy specifically used Kligman’s experiments as an example of unethical research, and subsequently the Belmont Report established bioethics guidelines prohibiting most research involving people. incarcerated.
Kligman’s experiments left scars on these men both physically and mentally. For example, a former inmate, Yusef Anthony, has publicly recounted his experiences in Holmesburg and how they continue to damage his health today. The family of one of the most prominent advocates of these men who was himself an experimental subject, Leodus Jones, also detailed both the generational impact and the contribution to medical mistrust specifically in the black community from these unethical studies.
However, these experiments are just one example of how medical research institutions have exploited black bodies unethically throughout history. Consider the Tuskegee study on syphilis and the story of Henrietta Lacks: in both of these examples, like Kligman’s experiments, doctors undermined black autonomy, emphasizing the importance of informed consent in research. biomedical.
As more became known about Kligman’s experiments, it became clear that despite the innovative impact they had in the field of dermatology, they still caused irrevocable damage. This harm has not gone unnoticed in the dermatological community at large: Groups such as the Society for Investigative Dermatology have removed their association with Kligman, removing his name from awards and lectures that were once labeled after him. Penn, however, has yet to do the same.
For decades, there have been repeated calls to action to have Kligman’s legacy dealt with by Penn. Recent articles published in 34th Street and The Inquirer, and the #PennReparationsNow protest aimed to “hold Kligman’s prison experiments to account,” but the University has yet to address the issue in depth. Currently, Kligman’s name remains in several arenas within the Perelman School of Medicine. Chairs, research laboratories and a chair all bear his name. Exhibits in the atrium of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine highlight his contributions to Penn’s legacy, and in particular to Retin-A. By proudly displaying her name without context and neglecting to formally apologize or publicly consider reparations, the University is implying that it does not view the trauma Kligman inflicted as worthy of recognition or compensation. This is unacceptable.
As undergraduates who have researched Kligman for months, we recognize that Kligman’s experiences both enriched Penn and hurt subjects. The University has benefited from the millions of dollars in royalties and donations that products such as Retin-A have brought in, and Kligman can be considered one of the most important figures who advanced the field of dermatology over the years. of his years of practice. These positives, however, came to the detriment and suffering of vulnerable people, the predominantly black prison population, but also children with intellectual disabilities and others that Kligman chose as subjects.
Exactly a year ago, President Amy Gutmann made Juneteenth a university-wide holiday to create “an intellectual space to pause for critical thinking and honest conversations (in many cases painfully ) “. It’s time for Penn to have an honest conversation.
Penn, as an institution, has to look within. The University has an obligation to regularly assess whether its current practices truly promote diversity and inclusion, and not just performatively statements against systemic racism. Penn must acknowledge and apologize for causing harm to the surrounding community, no matter how long it has been since the harm has occurred. Indeed, Penn has facilitated and benefited from Kligman’s research practices on vulnerable and marginalized populations, and must live up to his responsibilities.
As students, we want Penn to stop gossiping about his past. We want Penn to confront the full picture of his legacy, admit his complicity in Kligman’s experiences, and formally apologize. Beyond that, the institution must pursue concrete initiatives to dismantle such environments which have generated this pain, this suffering and this medical mistrust, in particular for the black community. Penn must proactively acknowledge his troubling history dating back to Samuel Morton and recent revelations regarding the use of the remains of black children killed in the MOVE bombing. This is not a one-off incident, but rather a long-standing model of Penn using black bodies without consent for the advancement of science and medicine. By reconciling all of these stories together, Penn would more credibly demonstrate that he is grappling with his past and is looking for a better way forward.
Countless people have called for the removal of Kligman’s name from campus labs and prestigious awards. Additionally, many demanded that the University teach students about the human cost of Kligman’s research.
This last year of the pandemic has disproportionately affected marginalized communities and has shown us the social inequalities inherent in our society. There is no better time to face the direct harm Albert Kligman inflicted on vulnerable populations. As Penn moves forward, he must constantly wonder if he is working to improve his long-standing systemic problems. Only then will its commitment to equity, justice, diversity and inclusion have real substance.
HIBA HAMID is a junior from Royersford College, Pennsylvania, studying neuroscience. His email is [email protected].
KARISHMA LACHHWANI is a junior student from Cleveland, Ohio studying global health and healthcare management. His email is [email protected]
MARC ROMERO is a senior academic from Birmingham, Alabama, studying health and societies. His email is [email protected].