California University Apologizes for Dermatology Experiments That Exposed Inmates to Pesticides More Than 4 Decades Ago

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The University of California, San Francisco, has apologized for dermatology experiments in the 1960s and 1970s using “questionable research methods” that exposed imprisoned subjects to herbicides and pesticides.

“UCSF apologizes for its explicit role in the harm caused to the subjects, their families and our community,” wrote Dan Lowenstein, the school’s executive vice chancellor and provost, acknowledging the part played by the institution in “perpetuating unethical treatment of vulnerable and underserved populations.”

The university’s apology was the latest in a series of acknowledgements in recent years by institutions reexamining the conduct of years past. It came as a result of the initial report by the university's new program for historical reconciliation, an effort launched by Lowenstein’s office in hopes of “recognizing that justice, healing and transformation require an acknowledgment of past harms.”

What experiments did researchers perform?

The experiments were conducted by dermatology researchers Howard Maibach and William Epstein on 2,600 incarcerated men being assessed or treated for psychiatric diagnoses at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.

Epstein died in 2006, so the program committee focused on examining research by Maibach, who is still a member of the school’s dermatology department.

In addition to being exposed to herbicides and pesticides, some inmates were given medications with side effects. Though the men volunteered and were compensated for their participation, there was little to no record of informed consent, and none of the subjects had medical conditions that the experiments could have potentially treated or improved.

The doctors conducted their studies at a time when governance of such research was still evolving at academic institutions around the country. Though such practices were common at the time, they had come under increasing scrutiny by experts and the media.

The research continued until 1977, when California state officials halted all experimentation involving human subjects a year after the federal government had done the same.

What did the committee find?

During its six-month investigation, the program committee compiled about 7,000 archival documents, many of which have yet to be analyzed and may result in a follow-up report. The committee said neither archival records nor published articles revealed any protocols about informed consent or communicated to participants the risks of the research.

The committee found that “virtually all” of Maibach’s studies lacked such documentation despite requirements of formal consent adopted in 1966 by the university’s committee on human welfare and experimentation.

While noting Maibach's prolific 60-year career in dermatology, including serving on the editorial boards of more than 30 scientific journals, "aspects of his research raise ethical concerns," the committee said in its report. "... Our findings show that Maibach practiced questionable research methods."

Those included topical application and intravenous dosing of pesticides and herbicides, placing small cages containing mosquitos close to human subjects' arms to observe "host attractiveness of humans to mosquitos" and placing cages directly onto skin to observe "direct penetration of the proboscis by the appearance of blood."

The report also noted that Maibach and Epstein had trained under University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Albert Kligman, whose research at Philadelphia’s Holmesberg Prison was found by Penn Medicine in 2019 to be “unethical and disrespectful of its subjects, many of whom were imprisoned Black men.”

There was no indication that the UCSF research was directed specifically at Black men, the report said.

The committee did not say whether Maibach would be subject to any action on the part of the university. USA TODAY has reached out for information.

How prevalent was such medical testing?

The case is the latest in a series of apologies issued by academic and governmental entities for medical experiments of decades past, including a statement by Philadelphia city officials in October for studies conducted by Kligman on mostly Black inmates from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In 2018, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors apologized for coerced sterilizations on Mexican and Chicana women in the 1970s at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. Such practices were also conducted at the time on Black women throughout the South.

The findings also recall the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies, starting in 1932, that tracked progression of untreated syphilis in Black men in Alabama over the course of 40 years. The men were never informed about penicillin even after it became available as an option for treatment.

How will UCSF respond?

In addition to sharing its findings, UCSF’s Program for Historical Reconciliation committee recommended that the university launch an oral history project focused on people subjected to research at the California medical facility between 1955 and 1977.

Maibach, who is still on staff with the dermatology department, expressed regret and remorse at having taken part in research not compliant with contemporary standards.

“The work I did with colleagues … was considered by many to be appropriate by the standards of the day, although in retrospect those standards were clearly evolving,” he wrote in response to the committee. “I obviously would not work under those circumstances today – as the society in which we live in has unambiguously deemed this inappropriate.”

Such research “clearly contradicts our community’s ethical values,” wrote Jack Resneck, UCSF’s chair of dermatology, in a letter to the department. “… 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.”

Lowenstein, the executive vice chancellor and provost, said such practices were unacceptable despite the legal or perceptual standards of the time.

“Truth-telling and rebuilding trust are foundational to our commitment to reconciliation,” he said. “We must acknowledge the failures in our history in order to identify a path forward.”

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