HomeNewsRecounting Holmesburg Prison horrors

Recounting Holmesburg Prison horrors

Allen Hornblum/File Photo

Author, lecturer and researcher Allen Hornblum spoke last week at Holmesburg Library, focusing on his book that detailed atrocities at Holmesburg Prison, where he worked as a literacy instructor.

It was in 1994, when Hornblum was working as chief of staff at the Sheriff’s Office, that he decided to make a career change.

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The reason was related to what he saw in Holmesburg Prison, where he started working in 1971. He’d see men wearing adhesive patches and bandages. Some of them had pimples, pock marks and scars all over their bodies. A guard told him what he saw was the result of medical experiments. Inmates, desperate for money, agreed to the experiments. They could make $1.50 a day, a lot of money in prisons back then, in hopes of possibly making bail.

The experiments went on for more than 20 years – while liberals Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth were mayor – before ending in March 1974, 50 years ago this month, when conservative Frank Rizzo was in City Hall.

Hornblum left the Sheriff’s Office to write a book on the experiments.

In 1998, he penned Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison.

Acres of Skin was followed many years later by a related book, Sentenced to Science: One Black Man’s Story of Imprisonment in America. The subject of that book, Eddie Anthony, is still alive.

Acres of Skin told the story of healthy men being intentionally exposed to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos and dioxin.

At the time, everyone shrugged.

“Nobody gets bent out of shape,” Hornblum said. “Nobody seemed to be bothered by it.”

The treatments were led by Dr. Albert Kligman, of the august and elite University of Pennsylvania. Kligman was a renowned dermatologist who co-invented Retin-A.

Hornblum labeled Kligman, who believed he did nothing wrong, a “wild man.”

“Come to Penn. We have acres of skin,” Kligman would say to anyone interested in conducting human experiments.

Penn ultimately apologized and stripped Kligman, a major donor to the university, of his honors. The City of Philadelphia and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia have issued apologies.

During his Holmesburg Library talk, Hornblum also showcased another book, Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America.

As for the experiments at Philadelphia prisons, Hornblum called it a “very dark chapter in the city’s history.”

Hornblum has talks scheduled on the subject on March 21 at Princeton University and March 26 at St. Joseph’s University. ••

To schedule Hornblum for a talk, email ahornblum@comcast.net.

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