University Apologizes for Experiments on Prisoners

UCSF conducted the dermatology experiments in the 1960s and '70s
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 24, 2022 5:30 AM CST
University Apologizes for Experiments on Prisoners
Stock photo.   (Getty/Kubra Cavus)

A prominent California medical school has apologized for conducting dozens of unethical medical experiments on at least 2,600 incarcerated men in the 1960s and 1970s, including putting pesticides and herbicides on the men's skin and injecting it into their veins, per the AP. Two dermatologists at the University of California-San Francisco—one of whom remains at the university—conducted the experiments on men at the California Medical Facility, a prison hospital in Vacaville that's about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco. The practice was halted in 1977.

The university's Program for Historical Reconciliation issued a report about the experiments, writing that the doctors engaged in "questionable informed consent practices" and performed procedures on men who didn't have any of the diseases or conditions that the research aimed to treat. "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," Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dan Lowenstein said in a statement.

The report said further analysis is needed to determine the extent of harm caused to the prisoners as a result of the experiments and what the university should do in response. The report focused on research by Dr. Howard Maibach and Dr. William Epstein. Maibach continues to work at the university; Epstein died in 2006. It wasn't immediately clear whether Maibach would face any discipline in light of the report. The experiments involved administering doses of pesticides and herbicides to the incarcerated men, who volunteered for the studies and were paid $30 a month for their participation—among the highest-paid roles at the prison and in high demand.

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Maibach wrote that he regrets having participated in research that doesn't meet current standards in a letter to the university's dermatology department. "What I believed to be ethical as a matter of course 40 or 50 years ago is not considered ethical today," he wrote. "I do not recall in any way in which the studies caused medical harm to the participants." (More University of California stories.)

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