Sanctioned child abuse

Author and historian Allen Hornblum writes of terrifying situations.
Author and historian Allen Hornblum writes of terrifying situations.
Posted: August 15, 2013

THE YEAR was 1973, and Pat Clapp had just ended the regular monthly meeting of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children, in Harrisburg.

That's when things turned irregular.

Clapp, the group's president and a mother of a child with Down syndrome, was approached by a distraught woman. She said her own child with Down, housed in a residential center, had been injected - without parental permission - with the meningitis virus as part of a vaccine study.

Clapp investigated and learned that a University of Pennsylvania pediatrician named Robert Weibel, under contract with Merck, Sharp & Dohme laboratories, was conducting the study on 20 children with Down between ages 3 and 10. None of their parents was asked beforehand if it was OK to use the kids as lab rats.

When Clapp asked Weibel how he could do such a thing to little ones with mental and physical disabilities, he replied: "This makes their lives worthwhile. They'll be making a contribution to society."

Which sounds like the kind of defense that Nazi doctors used during the Nuremberg trials, when they were tried for performing grisly medical experiments on prisoners, many of whom perished as a result.

When Clapp went public with what she learned about Weibel's study, all hell broke loose. Wall-to-wall media coverage and subsequent state investigations resulted in a ban on unauthorized medical research in Pennsylvania's mental institutions.

"Pat Clapp is a hero, and I wish there had been more," says local author and historian Allen Hornblum, who writes about Clapp and others in his new, can't-put-it-down book Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). "There were so many people who knew about experiments on children or heard about it, but they kept their mouths shut. And that's really a key part of the story."

Hornblum's book documents one hideous story after another of medical experimentations perpetrated on kids. The children, housed in state-run institutions, were "feebleminded" or poor or disabled or orphaned. Or they had parents who lacked the resources to protect them from researchers who saw their children as chattel.

As "cheaper than lab animals and less problematic to deal with than adults," Hornblum writes.

The stories that he has unearthed, with co-authors Judith Newman and Gregory Dober, are ghastly. We learn of children subjected to electric shock. Dosed with LSD. Castrated and sterilized. Fed feces-tainted foods. And of young, poor black women subjected to gynecological procedures, without anesthesia, because it was believed that black women felt pain differently than white women did.

One of the most chilling passages in Against Their Will includes the recollection of a young dermatology student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s. She recalled how world-famous physician researcher Albert Kligman - co-creator of Retin-A, the anti-acne medication also used to treat aging skin - described how easy it was to infect "retarded" children with ringworm.

Recalls the student, "He told us, 'The kids in these institutions are so desperate for affection, you could hit them over the head with a hammer and they would love you for it.' "

Child sexual predators, exploiting the same vulnerability to hurt kids, have gone to prison for their actions. Kligman and medical researchers of his ilk got away with it simply by wearing white coats.

If Hornblum's name is familiar to Philadelphians, it's probably because of the critical acclaim he received for his 1998 expose, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison - A True Story of Abuse and Exploitation in the Name of Medical Science. The title of the book, which chronicled Kligman's use of prisoners for skin research, was inspired by Kligman's rapt first impression of the now-shuttered Northeast prison, on Torresdale Avenue.

"All I saw before me were acres of skin," Kligman said. "It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time."

What a monster.

Acres of Skin eventually gave birth to Against Their Will, Hornblum says.

"After that book came out, I started hearing stories about how Holmesburg wasn't the worst of it, that children had been experimented upon for decades," says Hornblum, a former urban-studies professor at Temple University. "Children were considered ideal guinea pigs for researchers when testing had advanced beyond the use of animals. Children were the step between chimps and humans - because they weren't considered 'full humans.' "

Hornblum has written an important book, one you'll stay up late to finish reading.

But good luck getting to sleep afterward.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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