A Dark Chapter in the History of Dermatology
As a brand founder, I feel it is important to share fact-based information pertinent to skincare and the world today. Especially in light of Black Lives Matter. This piece also gives me the opportunity to acknowledge my own white privilege.
That said, I feel it is relevant to share this piece written by my colleague, Kat (a non-black, person of colour), whose research illuminates this relatively unknown story. To read more skincare related articles written by Kat, you can find his blog here.
I hope this exposé may inspire you to share this story and amplify the voices of those who have been muffled.
'Because those who don't remember history, are bound to repeat its mistake. And if we forget history, it's the same as ignoring the existence of inequality and injustice.'
“I felt like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time”, said Dr. Albert Kligman – a dermatologist who was considered a pioneer in his field - in a 1966 interview.
This may seem like a light-hearted and innocent statement, but the story behind it is anything but.
And here’s the dark truth behind it.
For years, Kligman conducted human experiments on prisoners in Holmesburg prison in Philadelphia - a large portion of which were black. After coming across the imprisoned population, he spoke the above quote – alluded to treating prisoners as a fertile field for experiments.
“All I saw before me was acres of skin”, he added in the interview, stating that the controlled environment of prison was perfect for clinical experiments.
And experiments he did.
In fact, his involvement with the experiments eventually became a catalyst for federal restrictions on human testing in 1978.
Aside from skin treatments, Kligman also represented more than 30 pharmaceutical companies and moved on to work with the military and test radioactive and psychoactive substances. And worst of all, he worked together with Dow Chemical Company to test dioxin – a nefarious substance, found in some herbicides, and later on used in chemical warfare – on inmates.
As many as 70 men have been the subjects of these experiments.
Many of which have met with devastating effects, including cancer and kidney failure. And in several cases, it also led to birth defects in children and malignant tumors. And all of this can be traced back to exposure to dioxin – which was eventually developed into Agent Orange used for defoliation in Vietnam.
In some other experiments, Kligman deliberately exposed prisoners to pathogens that led to serious skin and health issues, such as the herpes virus, staphylococcus bacteria, and the athlete’s foot fungus.
Mr. Hornblum – author of the book “Acres of Skin” that exposed the ugly truth behind Kligman’s history - wrote “He turned Holmesburg into the Kmart of human experimentation. It was a real industry.”
Why would he do this, you may ask?
Kligman simply believed those experiments were just a means to an end, and that in the end, the public would benefit greatly from his knowledge.
"My use of paid prisoners as research subjects in the 1950s and 1960s was in keeping with this nation's standard protocol for conducting scientific investigations at that time," he said matter-of-factly.
And in a way, his experiments did lead to many discoveries in the field of dermatology. He invented Retin-A – the gold standard for anti-aging treatments and anti-acne medication. Plus, he contributed to the deep understanding of the human hair cycle, the step-by-step progression of acne, treatments on rosacea, fungal infections, and use of hydroquinone for melasma. He also coined the terms ‘photoaging’, ‘cosmeceuticals’, and ‘telogen effluvium’.
He believed that it was all worth it and that “no long-term harm was done”.
However, nearly 300 former inmates begged to differ.
In October 2000, the group of ex-inmates filed a lawsuit against Kligman, among other parties, for injuries they said had resulted from the prison experiments.
Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed.
Can you imagine?
Over 20 years of inhumane experiments, all dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Under Kligman’s direction, the experiments in Holmesburg prison went on for over 20 years.
On the surface, at the beginning, it all seemed harmless enough. Testing would involve toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, skin creams, eye drops, etc. But what you may not realize is how excruciating the procedures could become. Some of the inmates developed severe cases of chloracne - the eruption of painful blackheads, cysts, and pimples. Others met with lesions and blisters that lasted four to seven months.
In fact, even long after “Acres of Skin” was published, Mr. Hornblum was still haunted by what he had witnessed firsthand at the prison.
He said in an interview, “to see minorities - the prison was about 85 percent black and there were very few high school graduates - to see all these people involved in some medical experiment about which they had a minimal amount of information. It was chilling.”
Nowadays, most, if not all, dermatologists are familiar with Kligman’s contributions to dermatology. However, far fewer know about the horror of his experiments on black people.
So how is it that such a harrowing tale isn’t more well-known?
It’s because certain powerful voices are conveniently amplified. And disadvantaged voices get muffled and swept under the rug.
Now, where does that leave us?
For once, we must recognize that it was wrong. Plain and simple.
No matter how many scientific discoveries came out of those experiments, nothing is worth the pain and suffering of people. And being aligned with standard protocols or laws doesn’t make it any more ethically correct.
The first step is to realize much of our comfort in the world of skincare was built on such atrocity. And we must actively seek to change the system.
Nothing could ever amend the past. But we can all work harder towards a better present, and a better future. We may not get it right every step of the way, but the key is to be open and committed to doing our best, and supporting those less advantaged than us.
Some may think, “it’s all in the past now.”
Yes. And that’s exactly why it’s even more important for us to remember it.
Because those who don’t remember history, are bound to repeat its mistake. And if we forget history, it’s the same as ignoring the existence of inequality and injustice.
This is a reminder that we could all be better. And that we all have a part to play in the fight against discrimination and prejudice.
Click here to discover eye-opening films that depict black stories and the ongoing fight for equity.