UCSF Apologizes for Dermatology Experiments in Prisoners in 1960s

December 27, 2022

Experiments included putting pesticides and herbicides on the men’s skin and injecting it into their veins. 

The University of California, San Francisco apologized for conducting unethical dermatology experiments on at least 2,600 incarcerated men in the 1960s and 1970s.

Experiments included putting pesticides and herbicides on the men’s skin and injecting it into their veins.  Incarcerated men who volunteered for the studies were paid $30 a month to participate. Other experiments included placing small cages with mosquitos close to the participants’ arms or directly on their skin to determine host attractiveness of humans to mosquitos.

The new report by The UCSF Program for Historical Reconciliation (PHR) raises ethical concerns over how the research was conducted at the California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville. There was no record of informed consent in many cases. In addition, subjects also did not have any of the medical conditions that any of the experiments could have potentially treated or ameliorated, the report states. This research continued until 1977 when the state of California halted all human research in state prisons, a year after the federal government did the same.

The research was performed by Howard Maibach, MD, and William Epstein, MD, both faculty in UCSF’s Department of Dermatology. Dr. Epstein died in 2006, and Dr. Maibach remains an active member of the department.

The PHR report was conducted by Aimee Medeiros, PhD, associate professor of humanities and social sciences, and Polina Ilieva, associate university librarian and UCSF archivist, under the guidance of Brian Dolan, PhD, chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The report found that “Maibach practiced questionable research methods. Archival records and published articles have failed to show any protocols that were adopted regarding informed consent and communicating research risks to participants who were incarcerated.”

In a review of publications between 1960 and 1980, the committee found virtually all of Dr. Maibach’s studies lacked documentation of informed consent despite a requirement for formal consent instituted in 1966. 

“Based on our archival research of internal human subject research review board(s) records and state of California hearings proceedings, PHR has concluded that Dr. Maibach and others engaged in questionable informed consent practices at the prison, especially before 1969,” the report states.

According to the report, researchers bypassed requirements to report their research to UCSF’s human subjects committee through a nonprofit organization, the Solano Institute for Medical and Psychiatric Research (SIMPR), which coordinated human subjects research at CMF.

Drs. Maibach and Epstein were trained by Albert Kligman, MD, a dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania who conducted studies at Holmesberg Prison in Philadelphia. In 2019, Penn Medicine stated that, while Kligman’s research may have met the legal standards of its time, it was unethical and disrespectful of its subjects, many of whom were imprisoned Black men. The demographics at CMF at the time of Maibach’s research are not fully known, but there is no indication the research was directed specifically at Black men, the new report states.

Dr. Maibach showed remorse in a letter to colleagues.

“I regret having participated in research that did not comply with contemporary standards,” he wrote. “The work I did with colleagues at CMF was considered by many to be appropriate by the standards of the day, although in retrospect those standards were clearly evolving. I obviously would not work under those circumstances today – as the society in which we live in has unambiguously deemed this inappropriate. Accordingly, I have sincere remorse in relationship to these efforts some decades ago.”

In a letter to his department, Jack Resneck, MD, chair of the UCSF Department of Dermatology, wrote that “much of the research described clearly contradicts our community’s ethical values… Even if this research may have been accepted by some in its time, it is essential that we now acknowledge the harms that were done and the inconsistency with our UCSF values.”

In conclusion, the committee recommended that UCSF disseminate these findings, educate its community about this history, begin an oral history project with those who were subjected to research at CMF between 1955 and 1977, offer an official statement of remorse, and continue researching UCSF's past.

“UCSF apologizes for its explicit role in the harm caused to the subjects, their families, and our community by facilitating this research, and acknowledges the institution's implicit role in perpetuating unethical treatment of vulnerable and underserved populations – regardless of the legal or perceptual standards of the time. Truth-telling and rebuilding trust are foundational to our commitment to reconciliation work and, in that spirit, we must acknowledge the failures in our history in order to identify a path forward that is informed by our PRIDE values and commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion,” said UCSF Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dan Lowenstein in an official statement of remorse for Maibach’s and Epstein’s research at CMF.

“There’s more work that we need to pursue to understand this and other parts of our history. Reconciling our past provides a way of bringing clarity to the present and the path forward,” added Lowenstein, who steps down from his position as EVCP at the end of this year. “To paraphrase the German poet Goethe: ‘They who cannot draw from 3,000 years are living from hand to mouth.’”

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