Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Attica Medical Experiments Exposed

by Greg Dober

On November 19, 2017, Heather AnnThompson, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which she described medical experiments that took place at the Attica Correctional Facility in the early 1970s.

Thompson, author of the recently-released book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy [see: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.32], reported that an article in the November 23, 1972 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine had cited prisoners at Attica being used for medical research. The U.S. Public Health Service and the National Institute of Health funded the project.

Two of the researchers had affiliations with the University of Kentucky and University of Rochester; they recruited nine prisoners for medical studies involving leprosy. Leprosy, a bacterial infection also known as Hansen’s disease, can cause permanent disfigurement, nerve damage and respiratory problems.

All of the prisoners had been diagnosed with leprosy. Four received white blood cells from adult males (donors) that had reactivity to skin-tested antigens of leprosy and TB, indicating they had been exposed to those diseases. A tuberculoid bacterium causes one form of leprosy. The researchers were trying to determine if the white blood cells from the donors would trigger a transfer of antigens for leprosy and TB in the prisoners.

By the end of the first day, the four prisoners who received the cell transfers showed, via a skin allergy test, an induced reaction to leprosy and TB antigens. They would not test negative for about one year after the transfers. Some of the other prisoners, who served as controls in the experiment, received injections of Dharmendra lepromin – a suspension of dead leprosy bacteria.

The article noted that permission was received from the prisoners and they were compensated financially. However, proper informed consent and non-coercive compensation for prisoners in medical experiments are still ethically problematic today, and there were laxer requirements in the 1970s. Further, a fallacy exists--both then and now--that medical experimentation is equivalent to providing quality medical care to prisoners, who have few other options to receive treatment.

“Prisons are public institutions, and we must insist on knowing what takes place behind the walls,” Prof. Thompson wrote. “It is past time for New York finally to open all of its records on Attica.”

Previously, PLN ran a cover story on the sordid history of using prisoners as subjects in medical experiments, often without their informed consent or by using coercive methods. [See: PLN, March 2008, p.1].  

Sources: The New York Times, New England Journal of Medicine, Medline, 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login