Public Health Symposium Panelists Discuss Legacy of Parran Hall Namesake

More than 100 University of Pittsburgh students, faculty and community members gathered in a first-floor ballroom at the University Club on March 29 for a symposium on the complicated legacy of Thomas Parran Jr., U.S. surgeon general from 1938-1948 and the founding dean of the University’s Graduate School of Public Health.

The school invited four scholars to discuss Parran’s medical career and his connection to the controversial and unethical Tuskegee and Guatemalan syphilis studies, and debate whether Parran’s name should be removed from the University building named in his honor.

The four panelists represented the fields of medicine, public health, history and art and architecture.

Parran served as the dean of the Graduate School of Public Health from its establishment in 1948 until 1958. The building, opened in 1957, houses the graduate school and was named in Parran’s honor in 1969.

It is Parran’s research and work prior to his service at the University, and studies he designed that continued during his tenure as dean, that have become the focus of impassioned calls for a formal review of whether his career and legacy conflict with the mission of the University and Pitt Public Health.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study began in a rural community in Alabama in 1932. Hundreds of Black men were denied effective treatment for syphilis so that the U.S. government and researchers could study the effects of the sexually transmitted disease on people who weren't treated. The study ran until 1972, when it was shut down by the U.S. public health service.

Similar studies were conducted in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948. American researchers willfully exposed more than 1,300 Guatemalan prisoners and mental institution patients to syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases during these two years.

The Guatemala experiment — and Parran’s involvement in it — was not made widely public until 2010.

More recently, an article about the Tuskegee study in The Philadelphia Inquirer in the summer of 2017 reported that historians and authors researching Parran’s documents found that the noted physician had a more direct role than previously thought and was the “intellectual godfather, the architect of the study” that perpetrated the experiments on 600 Black men in the rural South. 

This new information led Pitt Public Health Dean Donald Burke to formally ask the University to review whether having a building named after Parran “is consistent with the University’s mission to create a diverse and inclusive environment.”

In his letter to Pamela Connelly, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, he wrote that the founding dean’s legacy “has been a concern to us at the Graduate School of Public Health for some time.”

Burke called the recent symposium a chance to “educate and public and the beginning of a process of evaluation.”

A Conflicting Legacy

Gregory DoberGregory Dober, an adjunct professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, medical health care writer and health care ethics advocate, has done scholarship on Parran’s career, tracking it from when Parran first began working in rural parts of Alabama and Oklahoma, battling smallpox, malaria and other communicable diseases, to his work in New York state and his advocacy of nutrition, strengthening the U.S. nursing corps, to treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in World War II veterans.

Dober was co-author of the essay that revealed Parran’s direct role in the Tuskegee experiments and was the basis for the Philadelphia Inquirer article.

At the symposium, Dober talked about Parran’s other progressive accomplishments: He helped to establish the Social Security Act, the World Health Organization and found the public health school at the University of Pittsburgh in 1948.

In an age when venereal diseases were rarely spoken about publicly, Parran actively campaigned for having the public be able to say the word “syphilis” because he believed that meant that society could then begin to effectively address the severity of the disease. Dober suggested that Parran was not as actively vocal on unethical experiments on Blacks and other vulnerable populations.

He was first to discover that Parran was a driving force in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments when he came across papers written by the dean, which are archived at Pitt, while doing research for his 2013 book, “Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America.”

While digging through the archival documents, Dober found a memo where Parran singles out Macon County, Ala., as the “ideal location” to study the impact of syphilis on the Black population “uninfluenced by treatment,” explaining that the study — which began eight months later — could be done with a group of “untreated” subjects.

During the study’s 40 years, researchers failed to give the men penicillin, which would have effectively treated the deadly disease, and did not inform them that the goal of the study was to catalogue the harms of untreated syphilis on human subjects.

“Without Thomas Parran ... there never would have been a study,” said Dober.

Examining Motive, Understanding Power

Susan ReverbySusan Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas at Wellesley College and visiting scholar in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, said that Parran approved what happened in Tuskegee and Guatemala, even though he knew it was immoral and problematic for public health sciences.

But, she added, what must also be considered is why he did it. Was it racism? Was there an underlay of imperial power?

Reverby said that we can’t just “fire” historical figures by simply removing names from buildings, because that does not expose systems. While people might feel like they are addressing an individual’s behavior, to remove signage or a name does nothing to examine the institutional racism that allowed the studies to happen, she said.

We have to consider, she added, that these men saw themselves as generals in a war against disease and they believed they were empowered to fight this and “society had given them the right to say who lives and dies in the interest of winning the war.”

“How people get involved in these situations is the larger ethical question,” Reverby said. “It can be structural violence, and we need to understand how power works.”

Struggle to Be Ethical, Inclusive

Bill JenkinsBill Jenkins, a professor of public health sciences at Morehouse College, managed for 12 years the U.S. government program that provides health care to survivors of the Tuskegee study. He warned the crowd against distancing themselves from “sins of the past.”

Jenkins cautioned that the Tuskegee study must be looked at in the context of the times, examining that era’s racism, history, Black leadership and economic changes.

But, he added, it is also necessary to understand how racism works in America. “We must teach students to see good and bad, so that they will know that the struggle to be ethical and inclusive in America continues.”

“Young people need to understand that they could make the same mistake that Thomas Parran made — in a different way, and in a different environment,” Jenkins said.


Impact, Role of the Building’s Identity

Kirk SavageKirk Savage, professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and noted historian of public monuments, discussed the roles of monuments and naming in collective memory and identity. He said that regardless of a name change, a dialogue is needed on Parran’s history.

“Taking the sign down is easy,” Savage said, but reckoning with history in a way that promotes meaningful discussion and elicits change is often hard — but it needs to be pursued.

Savage discussed how too often signs and monuments are used to revise and erase history and diminish crimes. He went on to explain that Parran’s involvement in the Tuskegee and Guatemalan studies is not just a personal blemish or a bad decision.

Savage said: “It’s bigger than that. Parran used his power and privilege not just to cooperate passively, but also he perpetrated racism in a destructive way. It was a historical crime, but it’s not just in the past. There is a very long-term impact, as African-American participation in health care systems and studies has been hindered because of his decision. So, it is alive and active in the present day.”

By keeping the sign up, Savage suggested, the University participates in the erasure of the history and responsibility of the crimes committed against African-Americans. “Every time we walk by the sign, we have to ask, do I passively accept this? Is the school asking me to accept the crime and just ignore it?”

Whatever decision is made — to keep or remove his name from the building — we must foster a dialogue that reckons with Parran’s history, Savage said, because “how do we as an institution grapple with institutional racism, especially when it is still embedded in our present and needs action?”

Comprehensive Review Taking Place

In response to the January 2018 letter from Dean Burke, Connelly and the University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion formed a 15-member review committee made up of Pitt deans, faculty, students and staff to further consider the name of Parran Hall.

Connelly, also a member of the review committee, said the committee is taking input from the community and experts, and believes the process must be “thoughtful and thorough” rather than based on a single perspective. She said that an academic and holistic approach is underway in analyzing the question of the building’s naming.

“We support the fact-finding and educational opportunity for the whole community,” said Connelly. She also noted that the symposium was planned several months ago by the Graduate School of Public Health.

Calls for action on the issue have been swelling on campus.

In February 2018, the Pitt Graduate Student Organizing Committee launched an online petition calling on University administration to rename the building. In social media posts, the graduate student organizing committee members said they “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.”

Beth Shaaban, a graduate student organizer and graduate student in Pitt Public Health, said that, so far, students have collected more than 900 signatures to support renaming the hall and that graduate students have been researching and collecting data about the issue and sending it to the University’s review committee.

Shaaban said the symposium offered an important education on public health ethics. But, to many graduate students, having Parran’s name on a hall does not embody the public health ethics to which they aspire.

“Removing it is a way to show Pitt walks the talk,” she said. “The community has a stake in this.”

The committee will follow the guidelines established for handling an institutional review. Over the next 60 days or so, the review committee will continue to gather information, input and perspectives from the community and documents. After that, a report will be presented to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher for evaluation. If a name change is recommended, the chancellor and University Board of Trustees, among others, will confer. 


Ervin Dyer,, 412-624-4796