A major California hospital has apologized for subjecting prisoners to unethical treatments by two doctors in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
In 1966, the University of California at San Francisco Human Welfare and Experimentation Committee required documented consent from experimental test subjects. But UCSF doctors failed to document consent from the majority of the incarcerated people subjected to the experiments, the Dec. 25, 2022 article says.
UCSF dermatologists Dr. William Epstein and Dr. Howard Maibach experimented on nearly 2,600 residents at California Medical Facility at Vacaville. They exposed subjects topically and intravenously to pesticides and herbicides, and placed mosquito cages directly on their skin to see how the insects would react, the Chronicle reported.
The medical school’s Program for Historical Reconciliation has since reported that the research failed to meet modern standards of informed consent from incarcerated test volunteers.
“Consent shows basic respect for dignity and autonomy of the person. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” said Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University’s School of Medicine. He added, “Prisoners are vulnerable to abuse due to their institutional setting, often lack of education and pressure to do what authorities demand.”
UCSF apologized for its role in imposing the harm on the subjects, their families and their community.
“Establishing the Program for Historical Reconciliation is a vital part of our efforts to understand and reconcile our past,” said Kristen Bole, UCSF’s executive director for public affairs. “Acknowledging the report’s findings and making them public are part of the PHR’s commitment to transparency and accessibility.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that there are three elements of informed consent: providing potential subjects sufficient information for an informed decision, making sure that subjects understand that information, and ensuring that candidates understand the voluntary nature of participation, reported the article.
The researchers paid prison participants $30 per month, in some cases free healthcare at UCSF once released, and in one case help finding employment after release.
“What I believe to be ethical as a matter of course 40 or 50 years ago is not considered ethical today,” said Dr. Maibach. “I regret having participated in research that did not comply with contemporary standards.”
Maibach and Epstein were under the tutelage of Dr. Albert Kligman, a dermatologist at University of Pennsylvania. Kligman conducted experiments on incarcerated people at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia for 20 years, according to the UCSF report.
Kligman experimented on mostly Black men at the prison as much as 72 years ago. The report did not include the race of the Vacaville patients.
Maibach joined UCSF in 1961. He used Kligman’s approach on experiments, the report noted.
Epstein, who died in 2006, was a former chair of dermatology at UCSF. In a 1977 hearing Epstein voiced support for experiments on incarcerated people.
“I do not recall in any way in which the studies caused medical harm to the participants,” said Maibach.
The report called for education of the medical community about the history of experiments on prison residents.