Bioethics Blogs

40 Years of Research Ethics: The Prisoners at Holmesburg

by Meryn Robinson, education and membership services intern

Since its founding in 1974, PRIM&R’s highest priority has been to provide those charged with ensuring research protections, as well as those involved in the design and implementation of research protocols, with the education, practical tools, and cutting-edge strategies needed for their work protecting subjects. As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we are reflecting upon four decades of connecting and protecting, and recounting some of the events that have shaped the field’s rich history in our 40 Years of Research Ethics series.

In 1951, Albert M. Kligman, MD, PhD was asked by prison officials to examine the 1,200 inmates at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, due to the prevalence of athlete’s foot in the population.  Dr. Kligman, a dermatologist from the University of Pennsylvania, was known for his research interest in ringworm, a biological relative of the athlete’s foot fungus. Later, Dr. Kligman would describe his reaction, “All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.”

Dr. Kligman’s visit marked the beginning of 23 years of unethical, non-therapeutic human subject research at Holmesburg. Deodorants, shampoos, detergents, and foot powders, as well as more hazardous materials such as dioxin, radioactive isotopes, and mind-altering drugs, were among the products tested on the inmates under the direction of Dr. Kligman. Although the inmates received small payments for their participation, they received very little information about the tests—and the possible harm—to which they were being subjected.  The experience left many with debilitating long-term health conditions. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.