Parran legacy undermines mission of Pitt Public Health


(Illustration by Elise Lavallee | Contributing Editor)

By Delilah Bourque | Columnist

Since members of the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health and of the Graduate Student Union announced they were petitioning the University to rename Parran Hall — one of the two main public health buildings on campus — the legacy of Thomas Parran Jr. has been in question.

Those opposed to renaming the building argue Parran’s contributions to the field of public health were great, including being a founding member of the World Health Organization. On the other side of the argument, those in favor of renaming the building cite Parran’s questionable medical ethics as director of the infamous Tuskegee and Guatemala syphilis experiments — studies in which hundreds of African-American and Guatemalan participants were infected with syphilis and told they would receive treatment which never came. The study led to death for many of its participants.

To have Parran’s name on a building would be to educate future members of the public health community under the shadow of white supremacy and racism in the field of medicine. The University symbolically erases Parran’s hand in unethical experiments by honoring him with the continued presence of his name on a building on our campus and has a responsibility to change it.

The Tuskegee experiments were originally intended to last six months in 1932, with a period of no treatment followed by a treatment period. But after funding ran out, the experiments continued for more than 40 years without treating the subjects — even after doctors at a U.S. Marine Hospital in Staten Island discovered penicillin was an effective course of treatment for syphilis in 1944. Many participants of the study who thought they would receive treatment after six months spread the virus throughout their communities unknowingly.

Despite this, Parran gave his approval as Surgeon General of the United States for the study’s continuation.

Parran’s reputation also suffers from his connection to a similar study in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948. The study, in which researchers exposed Guatemalan subjects to syphilis without obtaining their consent to observe the progression of the disease, proceeded with Parran’s approval and personal interest.

Since Parran’s death and the reevaluation of his legacy, other organizations have taken action to distance themselves from the ex-surgeon general. Following the revelations about his involvement in these questionable experiments, the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association renamed its lifetime achievement award from the Thomas Parran Award to the ASTDA Distinguished Career Award in 2013.

With new information, it only makes sense to reconsider our societal norms.

In a letter to the editor published in The Pitt News last week, Parran’s grandson and grandnephew argued against the renaming of Parran Hall, citing his positive contributions to the University and the field of public health.

It’s true, Parran worked to control the spread of infectious diseases in rural areas and remove the public stigma around syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections — treating them as a public health issue rather than a moral one. But it’s not enough to just say Parran’s positive contributions justify his namesake building.

Naming a building after a person honors them and their legacy. The K. Leroy Irvis Hall — formerly Pennsylvania Hall, a residence building on upper campus — was recently renamed to honor Irvis, who earned a law degree at Pitt in 1954 and later became the first African-American speaker of the House in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Similarly, Salk Hall is named after Jonas Salk, who conducted research while he was a faculty member at Pitt that lead him to create a polio vaccine.

Irvis and Salk are examples of people with distinguished legacies who deserve the honor of having a building named after them — and Parran Hall deserves a namesake just as distinguished.

If Pitt renames the building, the good aspects of Parran’s legacy should still be studied and taught, especially as part of classes in the Graduate School of Public Health. A display inside the school acknowledging both Parran’s contributions and controversy would allow the University to accept its history without honoring a man who oversaw the suffering of hundreds and did nothing to stop it.

The University should not have to honor those with questionable moral ethics in order to recognize the contributions of Pitt alumni and faculty. Only representatives of the excellency Pitt has in its past — such as Irvis and Salk — deserve the honor of a campus building named after them.

A strong contender whose name deserves to be on Parran Hall is Maud Menten. During her tenure at Pitt in 1918, Menten’s research brought about a mathematical equation to describe the rate of biological reactions proportionate to enzyme and substrate concentration. Menten’s work helped lay the foundation of life-saving treatments, including enzyme replacement therapy, where enzymes an individual is lacking, usually due to genetic mutation, are administered to the patient via intravenous therapy. Enzyme replacement therapy is used to treat a broad range of diseases, such as Pompe Disease and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. Menten also helped identify proteins from various bacteria that were then used to treat people against outbreaks of scarlet fever in Pittsburgh.

Menten would be an ideal candidate to rename Parran Hall after. Her work is still relevant in medicine today.

And while Parran’s contributions to the world of public health shouldn’t be ignored, there are better ways of educating public health students about the necessity of medical ethics rather than forcing them to study in a building named after the man who oversaw unethical and racist research.

Delilah primarily writes about social issues and politics for The Pitt News. Write to her at [email protected].