We write as relatives of Dr. Thomas Parran, the continuance of whose name on a building at the University’s Graduate School of Public Health is in question and is the subject of an April 6 open letter that appeared in this publication. That letter supported removal of his name. We oppose its removal.
We credit and thank the University and graduate school administration for addressing the matter thoughtfully, inviting discussion, weighing benefits and burdens.
The graduate school’s March 29 symposium about Parran justly noted his many positive contributions to public health. He was among the founders of the Graduate School of Public Health, the health-related provisions of the Social Security Act, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pan American Health Organization, the World Health Organization and other public health institutions that still underpin our lives and well-being. He was personally courageous in the causes of prolonging the lives and alleviating the suffering of others. At great personal risk at the age of 26 in 1918, he waded into the treatment of poor migrant workers afflicted with epidemics of typhoid fever and what was called the “Spanish influenza,” which killed nearly everybody exposed to it. Later, as health commissioner for New York, he led the way for the improvement of state and county public health offices, which until his time were often treated as political spoils, filled with cronies who were vigorously protected. He also risked his career by persistently and publicly addressing the problem of syphilis at a time when the word was banned, indeed censored, from public discourse. Then, as now, a single wrong word could ruin a public figure. A lone voice, he effected a social paradigm shift.
Being a practical idealist, always far-sighted with the desired end result in mind, Parran not only helped conceive the aforementioned institutions and reforms but also managed the more difficult feat of getting them funded and completed by governmental appropriations and philanthropic bequests. Many of those protesting his name on the graduate school would not be there if not for Parran’s relationship with the children of Andrew Mellon, who had confidence in him and who made the school possible. He was the first, and many say the last, great surgeon general of the United States. He held the post at the time of greatest need, during the Great Depression and the World War II. In terms of achieving practical benefits for millions of people, he was one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century.
If Parran’s name is removed from the sign outside Parran Hall, his memorial will be found by opening one’s eyes and looking around. One observes vastly increased levels of health and longevity in the general population compared to those of 75 years ago. Parran, however, was never one to rest or be satisfied. He would focus his inexhaustible energies on new diseases that call for attention now, even amid many improvements for which he could claim some credit.
Even if Parran’s name is erased from the graduate school, it can never be erased from who we are and how we came to be.
John C Parran (Class of 1984) and Richard L Kirkpatrick are a grandson and grandnephew, respectively, of Thomas Parran.