Albert Montgomery Kligman (March 17, 1916 – February 9, 2010) was a dermatologist who invented Retin-A, the popular acne medication, but may be best-known for a scandal involving involuntary dermatological experiments performed on prisoners in the Philadelphia prison system.
Kligman was born in Philadelphia to poor Jewish immigrants, his father from Ukraine and mother from England. As a child, he was a Boy Scout, developing a love of plants on scouting trips to the countryside.
He went on to receive a PhD in botany from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942, specializing in the study of fungi. He continued at the University of Pennsylvania, enrolling in its medical school, earning his M.D. in 1947. He chose dermatology as his specialty in order to apply his expertise in fungi.
Kligman was a prolific scholar and was known for bringing scientific rigor to a field that, at the time, was lacking it. Kligman wrote numerous papers on run-of-the-mill dermatological conditions such as athlete's foot and dandruff. He also worked at the intersection of cosmetics and medicine, coining the terms "cosmeceuticals" and "photoaging."
His identification of the use of tretinoin as a treatment for acne and wrinkles was perhaps his best-known contribution to dermatology. Sold as Retin-A, this innovation earned Kligman significant royalties. He was a generous supporter of the department of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, having donated over $4 million by 1998.
Despite his significant scientific contributions, Kligman is best known for conducting human experiments on prisoners at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. Stemming from early testing of treatments for ringworm, his work there started with en effort to control athlete's foot at the invitation of prison officials. He found the environment fraught with possibilities, and undertook dozens of experiments on prisoners there for pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. While the prisoners were paid for their participation, little effort was taken to assure the safety of the test subjects, some of whom were intentionally exposed to pathogens causing infections, including herpes, staphylococcus, and athlete's foot. Moreover, Kligman's paying subjects had other unintended consequences: the economic power gained by some subjects allowed them to "coerce sexual favors from other inmates."
While Kligman maintained that the testing was consistent with scientific and ethical norms of the era, nearly 300 subjects tested while in prison sued him, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johnson & Johnson. Though the suit was dismissed under the statute of limitations, the public reaction to the testing program contributed to the enactment of federal regulations restricting medical studies in prisons. Later commentators, including Senator Ted Kennedy, remarked how, in spite of the sets of ethical principles laid out in the 1947 Nuremberg Code and (much later) the Declaration of Helsinki, the poorer members of society typically bore the brunt of unethical biomedical research; Kligman's research at Holmesburg prison has become a textbook example of such unethical experimenting, and has been denounced as equivalent to "the barbarity and sadism of Auschwitz and Dachau."
Beyond the controversies relating to the testing on prisoners, Kligman was found to have discrepancies in the data underlying his experiments. This led to his research being barred by the Food and Drug Administration for a period.