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College Statement Regarding the Holmesburg Prison Experiments

January 11, 2023


In recent weeks, the leadership of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has been privileged to meet with members of the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition to hear their grievances about the College’s “silence as it pertains to the Holmesburg Prison Experiments.” Although Coalition members acknowledge that the College played no role in the experiments, they expressed specific concerns related to the College’s public silence about them and their impact on the inmate subjects, many of whom were African American and were never properly informed about the risks of their participation. The Coalition also cited the College’s presentation of a Distinguished Achievement Award in 2003 to Dr. Albert Kligman, who led the Holmesburg experiments from 1951-1974.

In response, the College’s Board of Trustees submits the following public statement:

From approximately 1951-1974, a significant number of inmates at the former Holmesburg Prison were test subjects in experiments that inflicted great and lasting pain upon them, pain that was both physical and psychological (Note 1). These experiments were led in large part by the late Dr. Albert Kligman (Note 2), a Fellow of the College of Physicians and a recipient of the College’s 2003 Distinguished Achievement Award.   

The College of Physicians offers its deepest sympathies for those who suffered, including their families, and it apologizes for its silence in not expressing these sentiments sooner. The College has rescinded Dr. Kligman’s Distinguished Achievement Award.

Though this apology is long overdue, it is no less heartfelt for the delay. As former President Bill Clinton said in his apology for the U.S. government’s role in the infamous Tuskegee experiments, the College recognizes that “[w]e can end the silence.  We can stop turning our heads away.  We can look you in the eye and finally say (we are) sorry...and (we are) sorry that this apology has been so long in coming.”

We also can commit the College to the work that our members do best; that is, to the task of healing. The College pledges to work with the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition for the purpose of leading a broader public discussion about these issues to raise public awareness about the Holmesburg Experiments to ensure that no such practices recur in the future.

Finally, the College offers its sincere thanks to the Coalition members who are participating in our meetings. They have shed light on a troubling but important piece of the College’s past, and we are all better for it.



  1. Many of the horrors that inmates suffered are detailed in Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison, (Routledge 1998), authored by Coalition member Allen Hornblum, who wrote that while Dr. Kligman enjoyed a “glittering career,” the inmates were “human guinea pigs who sacrificed their health and comfort to experimental medicine.”
  2. Dr. Kligman was a professor in the Dermatology Dept. at Penn’s Medical School for more than 50 years, starting in 1947.  He was elected a Fellow of the College of Physicians in 1954.