Video tells searing story Inmates recount harmful experiments in documentary

Posted: March 14, 2004

Jesse Williams remembers the first time he heard of the chance to make some money during his incarceration at Holmesburg Prison. He had just arrived, and the word from other inmates was that he could earn a few bucks if he submitted to some harmless medical testing.

"I said 'Of course,' " recalled Williams, of Philadelphia, last week.

At first, the testing involved the application of deodorant and talcum powder. But it soon escalated to experiments involving mysterious substances that burned Williams' skin and left crater-like depressions.

"It started out mild-mannered," he said, and "ended up a monster, ended up ugly."

Williams, 66, and other former inmates who submitted to the testing tell their stories in a new video documentary, "Acres of Skin: The Documentary," which will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Bright Hall on Temple University's Ambler campus.

"Acres of Skin" is the latest project of Temple urban studies professor Allen Hornblum, who first recounted the testing saga in his 1998 book, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison.

Hornblum made the video with George Holmes, a former photojournalist.

"There were always people pressing me on this, that this would be great on film," said Hornblum, a Philadelphia resident and former chief of staff in the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office.

Hornblum and Holmes produced the video themselves. For Hornblum, it was a natural progression in his fight to keep public the plight of inmates used as subjects in harmful experimental testing, he said.

As a literacy volunteer in Philadelphia prisons in the 1970s, Hornblum noticed bandages on the backs and limbs of the inmates. He soon learned, he said, that the prisoners were test subjects for a variety of medical experiments that were funded by pharmaceutical companies and other enterprises and conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania.

By the mid-1990s, he was committed to writing about the practice. He quit his job in the Sheriff's Office and started work on Acres of Skin.

"I just wanted to educate the public around the country that these things went on," Hornblum said. "We in Philadelphia have our own Tuskegee."

He was referring to the infamous 40-year experiment conducted by public-health officials on a group of poor black men in Alabama. In that study, medical researchers offered free health care to men infected with syphilis and then withheld medicine from them to observe the effects of the disease on their bodies.

Hornblum said equally unethical practices were carried out against the test subjects at Holmesburg - a group of mostly poor African American inmates. Those inmates, he said, were paid $10 to $300 to submit to medical experiments ranging from the application of everyday hair and skin-care products to the testing of dioxin, radioactive isotopes and mind-altering drugs. According to Hornblum, none of the subjects ever gave informed consent.

Williams was one of them. He was sent to Holmesburg in 1957 as a teenager, he said, on drug charges that were later overturned. "My family was poor. I had no means of income. This permitted me to have a little money."

The riskier the test, he said, the greater the pay. But no one ever talked about the risk.

The testing at Holmesburg was supervised by dermatologist Albert Kligman of Philadelphia, who is credited with developing Retin-A, a wrinkle and acne treatment. The title for Hornblum's book was inspired by Kligman's comment to a reporter that Holmesburg offered him "acres of skin" for his research.

Kligman also conducted testing on institutionalized children. He has said that his research "was in keeping with this nation's standard protocol for conducting scientific investigations at that time."

"Tens of millions of dollars were made there," said A. Bernard Ackerman, a dermatopathologist in New York who, as a young medical resident at the prison in 1966, assisted Kligman. "And it wasn't really research. It was a business.

"I didn't realize the full impact of it over the course of that year. . . . We were being made to feel that we were doing something special."

Near the end of his time there, however, Ackerman said, "I was having serious misgivings."

In his view, the inmates should receive compensation. But more importantly, he said, Penn should apologize, publish a paper on its role in the experiments, and "make a serious effort to teach medical students about how to behave."

"We certainly apologize to any inmate who feels he has been harmed long-term by any of the experiments," Penn spokeswoman Rebecca Harmon said last week. As for Ackerman's suggestion of the publication of a paper, she said, "We don't see a need to publish a paper."

In the 1980s, after a lawsuit was filed, Penn made small settlements with several of the inmates, Hornblum said. The university also offered to give health evaluations but declined to pay for medical treatment.

Hornblum said he would try to sell his new documentary to public television.

"I think it has a good bit of punch to it. It gives a voice to these guys. You can see them, you can hear them, you can feel their outrage and their pain."

Send Education news to suburban staff writer Cynthia J. McGroarty, The Inquirer, 800 River Rd., Conshohocken, Pa. 19428; e-mail it to; or fax it to 610-313-8243. Contact Cynthia J. McGroarty at 610-313-8113 or

If You Go

"Acres of Skin: The Documentary" will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Bright Hall on the Ambler campus of Temple University, 580 Meetinghouse Rd. Admission is free. For more information, call 215-283-1290.

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