After a long campaign of ballots, petitions, special committees and a recommendation from the chancellor, the main building for Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health will no longer be named after Thomas Parran Jr., a former Pitt dean who presided over the infamous and racist Tuskegee and Guatemala syphilis experiments during his time as U.S. surgeon general.
Pitt’s Board of Trustees, a governing body of 36 voting members which oversees all University activities, voted unanimously in its summer meeting Friday, June 8, to remove Parran’s name. The Board did not decide on a new name for the building on DeSoto Street.
Parran has a checkered reputation. Along with acting as surgeon general from 1936 to 1948 and helping establish the Graduate School of Public Health in 1948, he was also a founding member of the World Health Organization and a pioneer in treating sexually transmitted diseases. Following his passing in 1968, the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association began giving away a Lifetime Achievement award named after him in 1972.
But similarly to Pitt’s Board of Trustees, the ASTDA ultimately voted to rename the award in 2013 after Parran was linked to two notorious experiments in the field of public health during his time as surgeon general.
One of these was the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, in which American researchers observed the course of untreated syphilis among hundreds of African American men in Alabama who were infected naturally from 1932 to 1972 — even after the worldwide introduction of penicillin. Parran is also now tied to the Guatemala syphilis experiments, where American researchers intentionally exposed more than 1,300 Guatemalan prisoners and mental institution patients to venereal diseases from 1946 to 1948.
The exact breadth of his involvement in these experiments is not clear. Evidence suggests that while he did not perform the experiments, he supported them with funding and followed their progress.
Karee-Anne Rogers, a senior majoring in Africana studies and English writing, said the Board made the right move by deciding to change the name and was pleased to learn the vote was unanimous.
“I am going to be on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee this year,” she said, “and it’s important to me that not only students get involved and put pressure on administrators to change things, but that administrators who believe in us and listen to us put pressure on each other.”
Rogers said changing the name should be easy, since the University has plenty of notable alumni to choose from.
“There has to be some alumni who, although living in a world living fraught with issues, made history without doing anything as bad as unethical STD experiments,” she said.