A Bay Area dermatologist and university professor accused last year of using state prisoners in decades-old experiments that included pesticide injections has denied in a legal filing that his accusers had any evidence he caused harm.
Dr. Howard Maibach, now in his mid-90s, filed a court petition challenging a University of California San Francisco report accusing him of using “questionable research methods” in experiments in the ’60s and ’70s on at least 2,600 male inmates at the California Medical Facility, a state prison hospital in Vacaville. According to the petition, the report was conducted in response to claims by colleagues that his “racist” research while working for the school was conducted on Black prisoners.
The UC San Francisco report issued in December cited medical publications detailing Maibach’s “intravenous dosing of pesticides and herbicides,” along with applications of those chemicals to inmates’ skin, and the pressing of caged mosquitos against prisoners’ skin and observation of the “direct penetration of the proboscis,” the part of the insect that sucks human blood.
The university issued a news release about the report that referred to “harms that were done.” The release also said, “Such practices were common in the U.S. at the time and were increasingly being criticized both by experts and in the lay press.”
UC San Francisco did not respond to questions about Mailbach’s petition.
Records and medical publications show no protocols were adopted to ensure informed consent by prisoners subject to Maibach’s experiments, or that they were told about research risks, according to the report, which drew nationwide attention. “Incarcerated individuals were not suffering from any diseases or conditions that the research was intended to treat,” the report said. The university’s news release said many of the men had psychiatric issues.
Maibach’s 60-page petition targeting the Regents of the University of California said the report and investigation that led up to it “are not objective academic research or scholarship motivated by a genuine desire to seek out or tell the truth.” Rather, they were undertaken by UC San Francisco “as a mechanism to target, persecute, and cast aspersions on” Maibach, his petition filed Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court claimed.
The school approved his work at the facility — which included research to help protect U.S. soldiers from malaria, and farmworkers from pesticide harms — and his projects complied with professional and ethical standards at the time, according to his petition. In the petition, Maibach rejected the university’s claim that he did not have the informed consent from prisoners.
The report, his petition noted, “does not claim that any participant in research conducted by Dr. Maibach has made any allegation of suffering or experiencing any harm from the research.”
Maibach remains employed as a professor at UC San Francisco and has been a frequent expert witness in court cases involving chemical exposures to skin. His petition seeks a court order that would force the Regents to provide records it has been “unlawfully denying” concerning the report on his research, and the UCSF Program for Historical Reconciliation that investigated him. The UC Regents did not immediately respond to Maibach’s claims.
His petition claims the records allegedly withheld show UC San Francisco manipulated the investigation to denounce him and “falsely portray him as an unethical and racist doctor” while “covering up” the school’s responsibility for the prison research. The report was based on a “severely biased, knowingly incomplete, and wholly unreliable … spurious investigation” conducted to shield the school from accountability over the prison research, his petition alleged.
An “anti-racism task force” created in 2020 by UC San Francisco faculty of color in the wake of police killings of Black people had spurred the probe and report, according to the petition. The task force claimed Maibach conducted “racist research” on Black prisoners and demanded the school ask him to resign, the petition said.
The report cited Maibach’s “long history” of research into “skin differences along racial lines, with race as a possible biological factor,” and said his work perpetuated racial science based on the now-debunked notion that race is biological.
Maibach said in his petition that California state records show that in 1961, the prison hospital’s population was almost three-quarters White, a number he claimed “directly refutes any false claim that the research (at the facility) was done on only or mostly Black individuals.” The petition did not say what percentage of his research subjects were Black.
In a letter to the UC San Francisco dermatology department about the report, Maibach said he regretted the research, and that ethical requirements for medical studies had changed over the decades. He said he explained the procedures to inmates, and the research risks. He also said he performed the procedures on himself to show the prisoners what was involved. He added that at the time, race was “ubiquitously used in patient descriptions” but through advancements in science he has come to understand that it “has always been a social and not a biological construct.”
The dermatologist cited “benefits” to his research subjects including compensation and skin care.
The report contains a link to a message to the UC San Francisco dermatology department from its chairman Dr. Jack Resneck, saying Maibach expressed remorse in his letter, but “it unfortunately also defends the experiments.”