Students petition to rename Parran Hall

Pitt’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee started a campaign to rename Parran Hall due to controversy surrounding Thomas Parran Jr. (Photo by Chiara Rigaud | Staff Photographer)

Pitt’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee announced in a Twitter thread posted Feb. 13 that they are starting a campaign to rename Parran Hall.

“We view Parran Hall as a constant reminder of the legacy of racism in the academic scientific and medical communities and the University of Pittsburgh’s symbolic commitment to white supremacy,” the thread read.

The nine-story building, located on DeSoto Street, is the primary home of the Graduate School of Public Health which contains both classrooms and administrative and faculty offices. It is named after Thomas Parran Jr., the nation’s sixth surgeon general from 1936 to 1948 and the first dean of Pitt’s School of Public Health from 1948 until 1958.

Parran was considered instrumental in pushing Congress to finance centers to control and prevent venereal diseases, such as gonorrhea, and was largely responsible for requiring syphilis tests for marriage license applications — a practice that most states have discarded. He also brought many leading doctors to the public health program at Pitt, including his deputy Surgeon General and successor as dean, James Crabtree.

But he also presided over two infamous experiments during his time as surgeon general. The first, what is commonly known as the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” began in 1932 and was not halted by the U.S. Public Health Service until 1972, when its existence became public. In the study, American researchers observed the course of untreated syphilis among hundreds of African-American men who were infected naturally in Alabama during that time period. Infected patients in the study were not given penicillin, the standard therapy after World War II for the disease, and some died as a result of the disease or passed it on to sexual partners and children.

The second experiment was conducted between 1946 and 1948. American researchers intentionally exposed more than 1,300 Guatemalan prisoners and mental institution patients to syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid during those two years. This experiment — and Parran’s involvement in it — were not made public until 2010.

GSOC began circulating a petition Wednesday, titled “Pitt, Rename Parran Hall & Stop Honoring an Unethical Scientist,” which is currently halfway to its goal of 200 signatures. People who fill out the petition are asked their name, email, postal code and affiliation with Pitt.

The petition recounts Parran’s involvement in the Tuskegee study and states that having a building named after him on campus is an affront to black and Latinx students.

“We must learn from the mistakes, prejudices, and grotesque acts of institutionalized racism and violence that characterize our history,” the petition says. “However, it is imperative that we do not normalize and neutralize them by maintaining monuments to their architects.”

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

The American Sexually Transmitted Disease Association changed the name of the lifetime achievement Thomas Parran Award to The ASTDA Distinguished Career Award in 2013 as a result of the discovery of the Guatemalan experiments.

A 2013 piece penned by the New York Times while the ASTDA was considering renaming the award included a statement from Donald S. Burke, dean of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. The article reported that Burke said the school has no plans to change Parran Hall’s name at the time.

The GSOC petition goes on to suggest possible other figures the University could name the hall after, including Dr. Herbert Needleman, a former Pitt professor and researcher who did foundational research on lead poisoning in children and Maud Menten, a Pitt professor who was a pioneer 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,” the petition says. “Having a just and inclusive public health practice demands it.”

Besides demanding the University rename Parran Hall and publicly acknowledge Parran’s “legacy of unethical experimentation,” the petition also calls upon Pitt to either hold a vote for faculty and graduate students in the School of Public Health to decide upon a new name or include them in a joint committee to oversee how donation money is allocated if a donor is solicited to rename the building.

According to University spokesperson Joe Miksch, Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is in the process of forming a committee to study the issue and recently asked University senate leadership to nominate faculty, staff and student representatives for it. The senate’s Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discriminatory Advocacy Committee is planning to file a position on the name of the building. An open symposium to gather community input on the issue is being planned for March.

Pitt released a letter Jan. 8 from Burke to Pamela Connelly, the University’s vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It stated that a school-wide meeting within the School of Public Health was already planned for April 20, given what Dr. Burke described as “renewed concerns” about Parran’s role in the Tuskegee study. The letter did not specify what the new concerns were or discuss the outcome of an earlier town hall meeting within the school held in 2011 after the Guatemala experiment came to light, the Post-Gazette reported.

Burke initiated both the institutional review of the name and plans for the symposium in early January, according to Miksch.

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