Nearly 300 former inmates of Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison are demanding that the Philadelphia City Council launch an investigation into secret medical experiments conducted on them decades ago.
The experiments, which included radioactive isotopes, LSD, BZ, infectious diseases and a variety of drug-company products, were conducted in the now-closed county prison beginning in 1951 and lasting to 1974.
Sponsoring the experiments were the U.S. Army, the CIA and at least two large private corporations, Dow Chemical Co. and Johnson & Johnson. Many of the experiments were overseen by Dr. Albert Kligman, a renowned researcher and dermatologist from the University of Pennsylvania. Numerous military and federal government physicians worked alongside Kligman.
In February 1968, Kligman said that when he first visited Holmesburg Prison he viewed its inmate population much “like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.” Kligman also said that he considered the facility as “an anthropoid colony” ideal for conducting medical experiments.
On May 7, former Holmesburg inmates appeared before the Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Law and Government and graphically told of the injuries they believe had been inflicted upon them by callous government researchers.
Former prisoner Edward Anthony said, “They (researchers at the prison) destroyed my life.” Anthony maintains that Army doctors working in the prison injected him with a “chemical warfare substance” so potent that it left him “spaced out” for months. The former inmates want the committee to recommend that the full Philadelphia Council authorize an investigation into the facts behind the 25-year experiments conducted at Holmesburg.
In November 1998, former Holmesburg inmates held street demonstrations in downtown Philadelphia seeking to draw attention to their use in experiments that they claim left them in need of long-term medical attention. The demonstrators maintained that they had been “lied to” about the dangers posed by experiments and demanded that they be given free medical treatment for experiment-related problems and financial compensation for pain and suffering.
The demonstrations were triggered by publication of the book “Acres of Skin” by Allen M. Hornblum, a criminal justice expert and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Hornblum’s book detailed the history of the Holmesburg experiments which, according to Hornblum, were conducted on hundreds of “human guinea pigs who sacrificed their health and comfort to experimental medicine.”
In October 2000, former inmates filed a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson and Kligman, alleging that they were falsely informed that the experiments were harmless to them. The suit, filed in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court, seeks $50,000 in damages for each plaintiff and assurances that no-cost medical treatment will be made available to the former inmates.
Thomas M. Nocella, attorney for the inmates, said that many of the men were suffering from cancer, severe lung problems and other maladies.
“They received only a dollar or two a day to be used as subjects,” said Nocella, “for drugs they knew nothing about.” Nocella claimed there was no way the former prisoners could have given any reasoned informed consent for the tests when “many of the men couldn’t read or comprehend the materials and forms placed in front of them.”
After the lawsuit was filed, it was moved to federal court where a judge ruled the statute of limitations had expired 20 years prior. The suit is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District, which is expected to hear oral arguments in July.
The Holmesburg Prison experiments were first reported nationally in the mid-1970s as part of a series of sensational and shocking revelations emerging from congressional investigations into questionable and illegal activities conducted by federal agencies. Many of the exposed activities were initiated by the CIA and the Army’s Chemical Corps at Edgewood Arsenal and Fort Detrick, both in Maryland.
Prior to these revelations, occasionally in the 1960s, newspapers in the Philadelphia area featured human interest stories about Holmesburg inmates participating in tests for private company drug products. One September 1960 story in the Philadelphia Sun Bulletin stated, “The tests have been going on for about 12 years, but got a big shot in the arm when the University of Pennsylvania Hospital’s dermatology department became interested in the prison.” The story said that the university’s Kligman, on a diagnostic visit to the facility, “was struck by the advantages of a prison as a testing ground.” Said Kligman, “We know where [the test subjects] are, what they’re doing, what they’re eating; and if they’re given pills six times a day, we know they’re taken.”
Another brief October 1962 article noted what may have been one of the Army’s first experiments at the facility when it reported, “About 100 inmates of Holmesburg Prison will be voluntary subjects over the next year for an Army study of the effects of heat and humidity on the human skin.” Continued the article, “A special climate chamber is now being built in one of the prison cells. The prisoner volunteers will be subjected to various climatic conditions and their reactions noted.” Dr. Donald M. Pillsbury of the University of Pennsylvania, who oversaw the experiment with Kligman, said, “The Army is interested in this subject because more men were incapacitated in the South Pacific during World War II because of skin diseases than injury.”
Amazingly, by 1963, Kligman was directing approximately 50 human experiments at Holmesburg involving nearly 1,000 inmates. One of these experiments was another Army-funded study on “the effects of poisonous vapors on the skin.” The study included machines “that create radioactive isotopes” and dropping “small amounts” of highly toxic substances “on a limited area of [the inmate’s] skin.” At the time, Kligman proclaimed, “This is a program for national defense … for once such vapors get through the skin they can destroy the nerve system and the central function of the brain.”
In a 1968 Bulletin article, Kligman was quoted as saying that after the prison’s experimental program expanded beyond dermatology studies to other areas of research, “We had an ethical problem. How much right do you have to cause risk to a prisoner in medical tests from which he has no direct benefit.” Explained Kligman, “The tradition has been, from ethical or moral considerations, to test only those people who could draw some direct benefit from the testing.”
The expanded Holmesburg program, Kligman continued, changed that tradition. “All the prisoner taking part in a test has is money,” Kligman said. “We pay him to lend us his body for some time. But we pre-decide whether a test is dangerous, and the prisoner has to depend on our judgment.”
Incredibly, early media attention to the Holmesburg experiments failed to set off alarms about the issues of informed consent and dangers posed. Under the Nuremberg Code of 1947 – an international agreement that the United States helped author and signed on to as a result of the horrendous experiments conducted by the Nazi physicians during the 1940s – it is “absolutely essential” that “voluntary consent” be given free of “any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching or other ulterior force of constraint or coercion.” Further, the code requires that any experiment be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.
In years subsequent to the Holmesburg experiments, and through to today, debate has been heated about the morality and legality of physicians conducting human experiments given that they are sworn to the Oath of Hippocrates. The essence of that oath is primum non nocere – “first do no harm.” The oath also requires: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”
Following the congressional revelations of the mid-’70s, a number of Philadelphia newspapers reported that suspicions were strong that the CIA had been involved with testing drugs at Holmesburg Prison. Eventually, over a period of about three years, reporters were able to piece together scattered declassified documents that verified intelligence agency involvement concealed through a secret financial arrangement with the Army’s Special Operations Division at Fork Detrick. That agreement was code named MK/NAOMI. While details of the MK/NAOMI project at Holmesburg remain sketchy because the CIA maintained a policy of “not keeping written records of these experiments,” glimpses of the project can be obtained through other declassified Army Chemical Corps documents. These documents reveal that primary among the CIA-funded activities at Holmesburg were experiments with several “mind-control drugs” used to determine “a dosage known as MED-50.” This was the “minimum effective dose needed to mentally disable” subjects. In all, it is believed that the CIA tested about eight mind-altering substances on prison inmates. These substances included LSD, BZ, a compound nearly “ten times more powerful than LSD,” several mescaline derivatives and various compounds that included substances drawn from hallucinogenic mushrooms. One of the reasons the CIA was attracted to working with Dr. Kligman was his high level of knowledge about edible mushrooms.
Other declassified documents reveal that prior to its association with the University of Pennsylvania, the Army’s Special Operations Division had been searching for a college or university “willing and able” to try out mind-control drugs on humans on a large scale. Earlier attempts at the University of Maryland had failed because of the reluctance of researchers there to expand their program without “liability waivers from the government.” Central in the Army’s search criteria was locating a university close to Fort Detrick and Edgewood Arsenal that “had easy access to prisoners or confined populations.”
Documents also reveal that the Army had concerns about the CIA-sponsored experiments. One memorandum by E.G. Scott, an Army law division chief, questioned conducting tests aimed at producing “irrational or irresponsible behavior” among subjects. Other CIA documents reveal that its Holmesburg experiments, code-named Project Often, were closely linked to other tests conducted from about 1952 through 1968 at additional state and federal prisons. These experiments were aimed at “creating temporary psychotic states in subjects” for the purposes of “disturbing a person’s psyche” and “inducing violent behavior.”
In 1974, CIA Deputy Inspector General Scott D. Breckinridge, wrote that Project Often “dealt with the behavioral effects of chemical compounds (drugs) on humans” and that following extensive testing “something called the ‘Boomer’ was developed.” Breckinridge also stated that CIA tests included efforts “to come up with a compound that could simulate a heart attack or a stroke in targeted individuals, or perhaps … to cause the targeted individual to act bizarrely.” In the same memo, Breckinridge noted that written test results were not available because the CIA had requested that Army researchers “only convey them verbally.” Breckinridge, however, did note that the Army had retained the names of test subjects and the compounds used on them in a computerized database.
Other Army documents state that one of the drugs tested at Holmesburg, identified then only as “EA 3167” but now believed to be “Boomer,” produced “delirium and other psychotic behavior lasting from three to four days with subsequent amnesia.” One former Fort Detrick researcher, speaking under conditions of anonymity, said that “EA (experimental article) 3167 was a highly classified compound once considered for use domestically during the Watergate scandals.” Added the researcher, “It was used widely and more effectively employed overseas where concerns about after-effects were not of any consequence.”
The Philadelphia Council committee is expected to make a decision soon on the former inmate’s request for a special investigation. Privately, some members of the City Council have stated that they think the request is only a ploy by the former prisoners to draw more attention to their lawsuit.
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H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative journalist and writer who lives in Florida.