Pe­ti­tion seeks re­moval of doc­tor’s name from build­ing

Par­ran in­volved in in­fa­mous Tuskegee syphilis ex­per­i­ments

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front page - By Bill Schack­ner

The com­plex that houses the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh’s Grad­u­ate School of Pub­lic Health is a fa­mil­iar Fifth Av­enue sight, as is a gi­ant out­door sculp­ture of a skele­tal man af­fixed to one of its halls, cel­e­brat­ing the hu­man pur­suit of knowl­edge.

But a now-de­ceased Pitt dean and fig­ure in U.S. health his­tory, for which Par­ran Hall is named, has a past that some stu­dents say is in­com­pat­i­ble with an in­sti­tu­tion that is a na­tional leader in train­ing health care pro­fes­sion­als.

A pe­ti­tion de­mand­ing that Pitt re­name the build­ing has be­gun cir­cu­lat­ing.

It says that Thomas Par­ran Jr., as U.S. sur­geon gen­eral, “presided

over the in­fa­mous Tuskegee Syphilis Ex­per­i­ments, in which treat­ment for syphilis was with­held from AfricanAmer­i­can men in Alabama long af­ter peni­cillin was proven ef­fec­tive.”

Dr. Par­ran served as sur­geon gen­eral from 1936 to 1948 and later founded the pub­lic health school at Pitt. He be­came its first dean.

A his­tory posted to the school’s web­site does not men­tion Dr. Par­ran but notes the school’s cre­ation in 1948 with a $13.6 mil­lion grant from the A.W. Mel­lon Ed­u­ca­tional and Char­i­ta­ble Trust. The school en­rolled its first stu­dents in 1950 as the 13th school of pub­lic health in the na­tion.

In govern­ment re­search that was con­ducted in Tuskegee, Ala., the U.S. Pub­lic Health Ser­vice in­ten­tion­ally with­held treat­ment for syphilis from il­lit­er­ate black share­crop­pers. It oc­curred be­tween 1932 and 1972 and en­abled the govern­ment to fol­low the pro­gres­sof the dis­ease.

Late Wed­nes­day, Pitt of­fi­cials said a com­mit­tee al­ready is be­ing formed to study the mat­ter and make rec­om­men­da­tions this spring. The move is in re­sponse to a re­quest made in Jan­uary by the school’s cur­rent dean, said Pamela Con­nelly, Pitt vice chan­cel­lor for di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion.

“It’s a very se­ri­ous and im­por­tant is­sue,” she said.

A com­mit­tee on cam­pus that is seek­ing to or­ga­nize Pitt grad­u­ate stu­dents into a union es­tab­lished the pe­ti­tion on­line and in print. It is cir­cu­lat­ing at a time of grow­ing un­ease na­tion­ally over sym­bolic trib­utes to fig­ures who were his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant but also tainted by Amer­ica’s racial past.

The pe­ti­tion says the ex­per­i­ments were done with­out the sub­jects’ con­sent, and that while stu­dents learn about the episode as part of their train­ing, Pitt de­liv­ers only part of the story.

“We learn about the Tuskegee Syphilis Ex­per­i­ments as the ex­em­plar of an un­eth­i­cal study and as a par­tic­u­larly ugly, racist, and trou­bling episode in the his­tory of med­i­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion,” the pe­ti­tion states. “What we are not told is that the very build­ing Pitt’s pub­lic health re­search is con­ducted in is named af­ter Thomas Par­ran.”

Abby Car­tus, 29, a doc­toral stu­dent in pub­lic health, said she and a class­mate got the idea for the pe­ti­tion last fall. Both took classes in the build­ing but had no idea of its his­tory un­til they read an ar­ti­cle about it.

“We were kind of hor­ri­fied,” she said.

Ms. Car­tus, a North Side res­i­dent, be­longs to the Grad­u­ate Stu­dent Or­ga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee. She said the pe­ti­tion de­buted Tues­day and had gar­nered more than 70 sig­na­tures, not count­ing those on pa­per. She said there are plans to open it up to all stu­dents, cam­pus em­ploy­ees and the city.

“As with all un­eth­i­cal hu­man ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, knowl­edge is not neu­tral,” she said. “How that knowl­edge is ob­tained­mat­ters.”

She said that like other sym­bols of the past that are stir­ring de­bate in Pitts­burgh and be­yond, this one de­serves pub­lic dis­cus­sion and the univer­sity has had am­ple timeto pon­der what to do.

“They rep­re­sent sym­bolic links to a very trou­bling past,” she said. “His­tory doesn’t go away just be­cause we aren’t talk­ing about it and not ac­knowl­edg­ing it.”

“It’s not enough to move on,” she added.

Pitt re­leased a let­ter dated Jan. 8 from the school’s dean, Don­ald Burke, to Ms. Con­nelly. It stated that a school­wide meet­ing within pub­lic health al­ready was planned for April 20, given what Dr. Burke de­scribed as “re­newed con­cerns” about Dr. Par­ran’s role in the Tuskegee ex­per­i­ments.

“I now re­quest that the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh con­sider whether it is con­sis­tent with its mis­sion to have the main Grad­u­ate School of Pub­lic Health build­ing named for ThomasPar ran ,” Dr. Burke wrote.

His let­ter did not spec­ify what the new con­cerns were. Ms. Con­nelly said they may in­volve closer in­volve­ment with Tuskegee than pre­vi­ously known.

“Par­ran’s legacy has been a con­cern to us at the Grad­u­ate School of Pub­lic Health for some time,” Dr. Burke wrote.

His let­ter also re­ferred to an­other set of ex­per­i­ments in Gu­atemala that Dr. Par­ran over­saw. In them, nearly 700 pris­on­ers, men­tal pa­tients and sol­diers were in­ten­tion­ally in­fected with syphilis to gauge the ef­fec­tive­ness of peni­cillin.

Both the Tuskegee and Gu­atemala ex­per­i­ments led to pub­lic apolo­gies by two U.S. pres­i­dents, Bill Clin­ton and Barack Obama.

Dr. Burke’s let­ter did not dis­cuss the out­come of an ear­lier town hall meet­ing within the school held in 2011 af­ter the Gu­atemala stud­ies came to light.

Ms. Car­tus said she hopes Pitt’s ad­min­is­tra­tion and its board of trustees, sched­uled to meet on cam­pus Feb. 23, will con­sider what peo­ple are say­ing through their pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures.

Dr. Par­ran ar­rived at Pitt as a sought-af­ter ad­di­tion to the cam­pus and is cred­ited with help­ing es­tab­lish the pub­lic health school into one of promi­nence among its na­tional peers. The hall was re­named for him in 1969, a year af­ter his death.

The pub­lic health school, lo­cated in Par­ran and Crab­tree halls, is in the heart of the Oak­land cam­pus.

Pam Pan­chak/Post-Gazette

The sculp­ture, “Man,” by Vir­gil Can­tini, is seen Wed­nes­day mounted on Par­ran Hall on the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Oak­land cam­pus.

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