An internal investigation at the University of California San Francisco found that two medical researchers affiliated with the university had undertaken unethical experiments on inmates of a Bay Area prison in the 1960s and 1970s.
“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,” UCSF Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dan Lowenstein said in an official statement of remorse released on December 20.
The controversial experiments in question were carried out by UCSF Dermatology Department faculty members Dr. Howard Maibach and Dr. William Epstein at the California Medical Facility, a state prison medical facility in Vacaville. Epstein died in 2006, while Maibach is still a faculty member at the university.
The experiments continued until 1977, when California outlawed using incarcerated people as human subjects in research.
The university investigated the experiments as part of its Program for Historical Reconciliation (PHR), which seeks to address concerns about UCSF’s history and institutional legacy, including unethical conduct in biomedical and clinical research.
Investigators with the PHR examined over 7,000 archival documents, medical journal articles, interviews, documentaries, and books as part of the inquiry into potential unethical practices in the researchers’ work.
UCSF released its first report on the probe’s findings on December 20.
“Throughout his tenure at UCSF, Maibach experimented on at least 2,600 individuals who were incarcerated at CMF,” the report said.
“His research was nontherapeutic, meaning incarcerated individuals were not suffering from any diseases or conditions that the research was intended to treat. Research conducted ranged in invasiveness and purpose,” the report stated.
According to the PHR, experiments the scientists conducted included injecting pesticides and herbicides into inmates, placing them in small cages with mosquitos to study the “host attractiveness of humans to mosquitos,” and direct observations of mosquito proboscises piercing human subjects.
According to the report, many of the researchers’ articles did not document how the scientists obtained the inmates’ informed consent.
“We found no documentation of regret or remorse by Maibach or Epstein regarding their human subjects research on incarcerated individuals at CMF. In fact, Epstein testified at the 1977 state hearings in support of biomedical experimentation in California prisons,” the report said.
After being given a copy of the report, Maibach wrote to his colleagues in the Dermatology department, saying he regretted “having participated in research that did not comply with contemporary standards.”
“I believe the ethical requirements applicable to medical studies in the 1960s and the 1970s have changed in the ensuing decades. What I believed to be ethical as a matter of course forty and fifty years ago is not considered ethical today.”
“The work I did with colleagues at CMF was considered by many to be appropriate by the standards of the day, although in retrospect those standards were clearly evolving,” Maibach wrote.
“I obviously would not work under those circumstances today — as the society in which we live in has unambiguously deemed this inappropriate. Accordingly, I have sincere remorse in relationship to these efforts some decades ago,” he said.
“Much of the research described clearly contradicts our community’s ethical values… 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,” Jack Resneck wrote.
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