Pitt, Rename Parran Hall & Stop Honoring an Unethical Scientist

University of Pittsburgh Administration

The heart of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health is housed in Parran Hall, named for former U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran, who presided over the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, in which treatment for syphilis was withheld from African-American men in Alabama long after penicillin was proven effective.

All public health students and professionals use these experiments as the exemplar of an unethical study and as a particularly ugly, racist, and troubling episode in the history of medical experimentation.

No one in the field of public health should be forced to continue learning, teaching, and conducting research in Parran Hall, and we demand the name be changed.

A shift in culture needed to encourage true diversity and inclusion on campus will not come from a top-down approach. Change will only come when academic workers, including graduate employees, and students unite to cause a positive shift.

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To: University of Pittsburgh Administration
From: [Your Name]

We demand that Parran Hall be renamed as part of a conscious effort by the discipline of public health to atone for its active participation in medical human rights abuses.

As part of the CITI certification that all public health students and professionals must complete and maintain, 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 (littered with ugly, racist, and troubling episodes).

What we are not told is that the very building Pitt’s public health research is conducted in is named after Thomas Parran, the surgeon general who oversaw the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments on 600 African American men, 399 who had syphilis at the time of enrollment in the study, and 201 who did not.

This research was conducted without consent, and most alarmingly, once penicillin was shown to be an effective treatment for the disease, it was withheld from these men. Parran also oversaw similar experiments in Guatemala on soldiers, sex workers, prisoners, and those who were mentally ill. This treatment of individuals is counter to non-maleficence and to social justice, a core public health value.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments precipitated the Belmont report, the formation of the Office for Human Research Protections, and IRB protections for human subjects in research. Its legacy is mistrust of the public health and medical care system with attendant health consequences.

While the federal government apologized to the Black community and Tuskegee survivors in 1997 and the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association renamed its Thomas Parran award in 2013, we still have Parran’s name on our building. While the federal government apologized for Guatemala in 2010, we still have his visage displayed in our building.

The University of Pittsburgh designated 2016-2017 as the Year of Diversity. What kind of commitment to diversity does it signal to force Black and Latinx students to study in a building named after Thomas Parran? What kind of environment does that create in the Graduate School of Public Health?

We must learn from the mistakes, prejudices, and grotesque acts of institutionalized racism and violence that characterize our history. However, it is imperative that we do not normalize and neutralize them by maintaining monuments to their architects. The name of a renowned public health school should not dedicate a position of reverence to someone who had a hand in such cruel and unethical research and medical conduct. Pitt should not give Dr. Parran reverence by retaining his name on the building.

We can think of any number of public health heroes who have served Pittsburgh. For example, Dr. Herbert Needleman, who did foundational work in lead poisoning of children and fought to have lead removed from gasoline and paint, or Maud Menten, a pioneering researcher in enzyme kinetics and histochemistry.

Pitt Public Health, the Schools of the Health Sciences, and the University of Pittsburgh have an opportunity to stand up for what is right by removing Dr. Parran’s name from our building. Having a just and inclusive public health practice demands it.

We hereby demand that the University of Pittsburgh’s administration rename Parran Hall, and that they publicly acknowledge Parran’s legacy of unethical experimentation. In addition, we call upon them to EITHER a) solicit feedback and hold a vote for the faculty and graduate students in Public Health to decide on a new name, OR b) if they solicit a donor to rename the building, the students and faculty should have equal representation on a joint committee with the administration to oversee how that donation money is allocated.