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Sentenced to Science: One Black Man’s Story of Imprisonment in America, by Allen M. Hornblum

Sentenced to Science: One Black Man's Story of Imprisonment in America, by Allen M. Hornblum

Published by Pennsylvania State University Press, 232 pages, 16 illustrations, Cloth Bound, $24.95

Book Review by Greg Dober

In 1964, medical research in prison led Dr. Albert Kligman and Edward "Butch" Anthony to cross paths with each obtaining very different outcomes. For Dr. Kligman, Professor Emeritus of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, prison research allowed the discovery of Retin-A, a popular commercial and patented anti-acne cream. For Edward Anthony, ex-prisoner of Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, prison research left him with debilitating conditions ranging from psychotic episodes, skin lesions and hands that swell like "boxing gloves." The disparity in results for Kligman and Anthony were common in post World War II medical trials in America. These outcomes of experimentation provided lucrative rewards for the researcher and negative consequences for the institutionalized test subject.

Sentenced to Science, written by Allen Hornblum tells the first hand account of Butch Anthony's experience at Holmesburg as a human "guinea pig" in the 1960's. Despite decades of unethical prisoner experimentation after World War II, Sentenced to Science is probably the only book written from a test subject's perspective. A story captured in Sentenced to Science that would have otherwise been lost in history due to the aging of the subjects from this tragic research era on vulnerable populations. An era of trials, which included the Tuskegee syphilis study and Willowbrook State School hepatitis study.

Hornblum, through the narrative of Butch, gives a perspective of the incarcerated human research volunteer. As Butch describes prison life, his reasoning for volunteering as a subject becomes obvious. Butch believed that he was volunteering for safe and easy experiments and would make a quick and lucrative income as a human guinea pig. As he quickly found out, the inducement of money was not worth the pain and suffering of the trials. As the experiments ended and the years progressed for Butch, he never realized that he would endure this pain and suffering for the rest of his life.

In his discussion, Butch is straightforward describing his caring family, growing up in a Philadelphia ghetto and his addiction to alcohol and drugs. He acknowledges misguided choices resulted in him being incarcerated at one of the nation's most dangerous prisons. Doing his time, Butch is not only punished by the judicial system but by the medical profession. A profession that is sworn, to "do no harm."

In chapter four, "Don't serve time, let time serve you", Butch describes how upon entering Holmesburg, he noticed that prisoners were patched, wrapped in gauze, bandages, and thought; "These muthafuckers are killing each other in here." At that time, he did not realize that these prisoners that were doing time were also sentenced to science. They were "volunteers" in the human research experiments at Holmesburg.

Butch describes an array of experiments that he participated. One trial he was told was an innocuous Johnson and Johnson bubble bath test. After being told by a prisoner staff member it was a safe trial, Butch was told to sign a paper that held the University of Pennsylvania harmless.

Despite being as Butch describes "a functional illiterate," he signed the paper and volunteered for the test that would pay him thirty-seven dollars for a few weeks of trials. Though the test sounded safe and easy, he found out within minutes the horrible side effects he had to endure. Upon being sent back to his cell, he was nauseous, had a bitter taste and passed out before he made it to his cellblock. The next day, he noted, "Large blisters the size of nickels and filled with pus had formed where the patches had been." Though being in pain, Butch continued the test for as long as possible for the lure of thirty-seven dollars.

Sentenced to Science is a lesson in medical ethics, social and criminal justice and behavior. Mr. Anthony describes the pressures of conforming to a prison system that involves sexual abuse, gangs, drugs and violence.

In the final chapters, Butch reflects on the path that he chose in order to transform his life for the better. This transition includes the physical and mental pain of the Holmesburg medical experiments from over forty years ago. Relieving these pains and anguish is not such an easy task for a person that has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and is a former black prisoner on limited income.

In the epilogue, Hornblum discusses a recent Institute of Medicine report that proposes to revise the federal regulations for prison research.

These proposed changes would make biomedical research in prisons less restrictive and more expansive. Based upon observation and discussion, I suppose many of us that have never been a prisoner or incarcerated in such a facility can theoretically offer such changes and agree that it will work. However if you are a victim of research, such as Butch Anthony, supposedly protected at a minimum by the Nuremburg Code in the 1960's, bureaucratic guarantees and promises will not be enough to convince you that prison biomedical research is in the prisoner's best interest or that proper protocol will be followed in the 21st century.

Greg Dober is a Doctorate student of Health Care Ethics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA and obtained a Master of Arts in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago in Illinois. He is a member of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanity (ASBH) and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

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