From the 1950s through the 1970s, Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania was the site of one of the largest medical research initiatives, using incarcerated men as test subjects, in the United States. The ethics of such an initiative, and the methodologies and motives of the physicians and researchers involved in the various experiments, were brought into question with the publication of Allen Hornblum’s Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison (1999). In this journalistic account, Hornblum detailed the injustices forced on inmates through the guile of members of the medical field and gave the reader a view of the research practices at the prison from the perspectives of both the medical personnel and the inmates. Hornblum’s new book, Sentenced to Science, is meant to exemplify an individualized account of life in Holmesburg and other Pennsylvania prisons during this period, describing the direct and long-lasting effects that seemingly uncontrolled medical experiments had on the life of Edward “Butch” Anthony (now known as Yusef Abdul Sidiquu).
The title of Hornblum’s book, though, is somewhat misleading: While Sentenced to Science does discuss Anthony’s involvement with medical experiments at Holmesburg Prison and their consequences, the story extends well beyond the confines of prison walls, delving into Anthony’s childhood, family life, drug use, criminal activities, fatherhood, and religious conversion. While Hornblum begins the text by describing the impassioned stories that Anthony has told to Hornblum’s classes for years, including a description of his first involvement as a human research subject, the book moves beyond the account of one man’s personal struggle as a test subject in an ethically compromised situation and becomes a critique of the U.S. prison system. Anthony’s perception of being “sentenced to science” is used as a trope for Hornblum’s greater purpose of arguing that “More than forty years of intimate involvement in prisons—both here and abroad—has taught us that true prison reform, in whatever manifestation, is either illusory, ephemeral, or so watered down that it is merely a charade orchestrated by those in power” (p. 197).
Sentenced to Science is, fundamentally, an ahistorical account of Edward Anthony’s life filled with unsupported claims that overburden the valuable personalized account of imprisonment in America couched within the broader political argument. This is due, in part, to the nature of the source material: Hornblum does not appear to have gone beyond the material from his first book, and, more important, he appropriates Anthony’s story in service of his larger argument, an argument to which the reader can easily [End Page 972] agree for sentimental reasons but that is not made with a preponderance of evidence or analysis. A majority of the text is direct quotation from Anthony; a smaller fraction is, seemingly, Hornblum’s paraphrasing of Anthony’s account; and a minute part is Hornblum’s own commentary. The text reads more like Anthony’s somewhat embellished, heavily edited oral history (or autobiography) than it does a work of history or journalism. Hornblum takes Anthony’s forceful and emotional account of his life and, by claiming it as his own argument, detracts from its power. If he had incorporated the beliefs, thoughts, and reactions of other inmates by examining their personal accounts, creating a prosopographic study, this text would have stood out as a major contribution to understanding the consequences of human subjects research on vulnerable populations.
Though I could assert that Hornblum’s book raises the issue of medical technologies in the form of human subjects or the cultural and personal transformations forced by the structure and function of technological systems like penitentiaries, that would be a reading of the text that the author (whether it be Hornblum or Anthony) did not raise. Sentenced to Science can serve as a primary source for looking into issues related to the history of technology, but it does not serve as an analysis of such issues.
Dr. Caruso is the Program Manager for Oral History at...