After encountering pressure throughout the 2018 spring semester from the Pitt community, including a petition started by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and a recommendation from Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Pitt’s Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to rename Parran Hall in July.
The original name of the home of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health was immediately struck from the plaque outside the building as well as campus maps. But now, with another school year starting, the question of what the building’s new name should be remains — as well as how Pitt should go about renaming it.
The name Parran was derived from Dr. Thomas Parran Jr., founder and first dean of Pitt’s School of Public Health. He is known for his pioneering research on sexually transmitted diseases and his efforts to remove the stigma surrounding them. But Parran recently became the subject of controversy after newly discovered information revealed he approved several racist and unethical medical experiments during his tenure as U.S. surgeon general from 1936-48.
The Board made the correct decision in removing Parran’s name from the School of Public Health, as I explained in a previous column. His unethical actions in the field of public health make his name unworthy of gracing a prominent campus building.
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the Guatemala syphilis experiments are the two infamous events that have put a blight on Parran’s legacy. During the Tuskegee experiments, researchers observed the course of syphilis in unknowing rural African American men from 1932-72, all while withholding treatment from them. The Guatemala syphilis experiments from 1946-48 were similar, except the victims were soldiers, prisoners and mental patients who were purposely infected.
Because of the racist and oppressive circumstances surrounding these cases, Pitt should consider a new name for the School of Public Health building that honors both the greatness and the diverse background of a Pitt affiliate. In this way, Pitt can recognize the important contributions of alums whose significant contributions to society may be otherwise be overlooked.
One potential — and very relevant — candidate would be Dr. Bennet Omalu, a living neuropathologist born in Nigeria during the Nigerian Civil War who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players. Omalu graduated from Pitt’s School of Public Health with a master’s degree in 2004 and went on to discover CTE while working in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office.
He faced pushback from the National Football League when he published his findings but still worked to create awareness from the condition, which occurs after multiple injuries to the head and neck. His name on the building would represent the contributions immigrants and people of color make both to Pitt and to the world.
Another suggestion would be Dr. Maud Menten, who worked in the Pitt Department of Pathology in 1918 and at one point delivered one-third of all the department’s lectures. Menten’s crowning achievement in the field of public health is the discovery of an equation to describe the rate of product produced relative to concentration in an enzyme catalyzed reaction. This work is the basis of enzyme replacement therapies for diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency, which has dramatically lengthened lifespans for people suffering from enzyme deficiency diseases.
Menten’s contributions to the University as a professor and to the field of public health make her a great candidate, along with her female status. She would be only the second woman to have a campus building named after her at Pitt — the first being Amos Hall, named after Thyrsa Amos, the University’s dean of women from 1919-41.
The University needs to consider factors such as diversity, impact and ethicality when determining whose name should replace Parran’s. But the administration should not make the decision on its own. Community feedback is an important part of choosing a new name for the building, especially because the petition to rename the building was signed by nearly 1,000 members of the Pitt community.
Another tribute to a problematic historical figure was removed from Pitt’s campus recently — the City removed a statue that community members deemed racist and offensive. The statue featured Stephen Foster, a songwriter specializing in minstrel music, with an elderly black man sitting at his feet. Following public outcry, Mayor Bill Peduto commissioned the Task Force on Women in Public Art to decide upon a new statue to replace the one of Foster.
But the Board’s ultimate decision does not mean Parran’s name should be erased completely from the history of the Pitt School of Public Health. Instead of honoring Parran with a Pitt building, his history could be included in a display in the School of Public Health. The display could educate public health students on the importance of making ethical decisions while pursuing new knowledge in their field.
A timeline describing the progression of the Tuskegee and Guatemala experiments, Parran’s connection it and to the University, and his contributions to public health would be appropriate. The display would highlight Parran’s checkered past and warn against allowing people to be harmed for the sake of medical advancement.
The Board of Trustees’ decision to listen to community concerns and change the 50-year-old name of the Public Health Building is a huge step forward. The next step in the journey is to rename the building appropriately — and to ensure that those who study inside it have a say in the matter.