Petition seeks removal of doctor’s name from building
Parran involved in infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments
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.
The sculpture, “Man,” by Virgil Cantini, is seen Wednesday mounted on Parran Hall on the University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus.