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Good practices

University revokes homage to pioneering dermatologist

American physician Albert Kligman (1916–2010) was famous for his contributions to dermatology. Kligman and his colleagues James Fulton and Gerd Plewig conducted pioneering studies on dandruff and athlete’s foot, discovering the potential of retinoic acid (Retin-A) for treating acne and pimples in the late 1960s. The researcher made a fortune from the drug’s development and even donated US$4 million to fund research at the University of Pennsylvania—he worked as a researcher at the institution’s Penn Medicine health care system for most of his career. Since his death, the university has honored him with an annual conference in his name: the Kligman Professorship.

Now, after an investigative committee formed in 2019 confirmed 20-year-old allegations about the dermatologist’s research practices, the institution has officially announced that it will no longer honor Kligman. Between 1951 and 1974, Kligman conducted unethical experiments on black inmates at Holmsburg Prison in Philadelphia. Funded by Dow Chemicals, he exposed some 80 men to high doses of dioxin, the raw material used in herbicides and chemical weapons, to study the effects of the contaminant. At the time, the experiment was not seen as problematic because the test subjects were given cash in compensation.

Roughly a month ago, Penn Medicine executive dean J. Larry Jameson cancelled the conference honoring Kligman, which has now been renamed after Bernett Johnson, a black researcher at the university who the academic leader called “an advocate of diversity, equality, and inclusion.” He also announced the first speaker of the new event: Susan Taylor, a specialist in black skin dermatology.

The institution also redirected research funds donated by Kligman to grants and studies on diseases that affect black people. “Penn Medicine acknowledges that the work done by Dr. Kligman was terribly disrespectful of individuals—many of whom were imprisoned Black men―denying them the autonomy and informed consent which the medical community now considers to be foundational underpinnings for conducting ethical research,” Jameson wrote. “While we cannot alter this history, the actions we are announcing today as an institution will change significant aspects of how we recognize Dr. Kligman and his research.”