UCSF apologizes for dermatology experiments in 1960s and 1970s

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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.

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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.

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