UPitt to Take Name of Doctor Involved in Tuskegee Off of Building

Alicia Ault

July 06, 2018

The University of Pittsburgh has decided to remove the name of Thomas Parran Jr, MD, from its graduate school of public health building, citing his involvement in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and another study that exposed unwitting Guatemalans to syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The move comes 6 months after the city of New York decided to move a statue of controversial gynecologic surgeon J. Marion Sims from Central Park to Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, where Sims is buried. Protesters had defaced Sims' statue several times, objecting to his experimentation on black slave women in the 1830s and 1840s.

The Pitt Board of Trustees voted on June 29 to remove Parran's name from the exterior of its graduate school building, along with all markers and plaques with his name. The Pitt Graduate School of Public Health will put together new programs "to address the complex legacy of Thomas Parran," according to a university statement. The university will also try to find a new name, which will require approval by the trustees.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher commended the decision. The building was named after Parran, the nation's sixth Surgeon General (1936 - 1948), in 1969. He was the first dean of Pitt's School of Public Health, beginning his 10-year tenure in 1948.

 "Today, equipped with facts that were unknown in 1969, the University's Board of Trustees voted in favor of removing the name of the facility that houses our Graduate School of Public Health," Gallagher said in the statement. "It was a judicious process. It was a thorough process. And it culminated in a decision that better supports our University's core values," said Gallagher.

Chiara Rigaud / The Pitt News

The vote was the result of a debate that began in part at the behest of a student petition that demanded the removal of Parran's name.

Lillie Head, a daughter of one of the Tuskegee victims, Freddie Lee Tyson, said she applauded Pitt's decision to remove Parran's name and also gave a hat tip to the students who organized the petition. "I commend the graduate students for their courage and consciousness as change agents," Head, who is president of the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, told Medscape Medical News

" am hopeful that that the whole story about this egregiously inhuman study that lasted for 40 years will one day be fully revealed," said Head. "This is just one step toward seeking the truth."

Parran Allegedly the Mastermind

The move to remove Parran's name was motivated in part by research unveiled in July 2017 that concluded that Parran — who was long thought to have knowledge of the Tuskegee experiment, but to have just looked the other way — had instead been the architect of the study.

"New documents disclose that Parran believed the African American population of Macon County, Ala., was perfect for a nontreatment exercise," wrote Allen Hornblum in a July 2017 article about his discovery for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Those documents revealed that Parran, who, as a public health physician, was devoted to eradicating STDs, wrote in 1932 that, "If one wished to study the natural history of syphilis in the Negro race uninfluenced by treatment, this county would be an ideal location for such a study," according to Hornblum.

Hornblum said his research showed that Parran never considered ending the study or giving the men penicillin, which, 8 years after the Tuskegee study began in 1932, was a proven treatment for syphilis.

The Tuskegee study continued undisturbed until 1972, when a reporter accidentally discovered its existence. By that time, many men had died, and some had passed syphilis onto partners and children.

Parran also oversaw a similar study in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. In that trial, US researchers intentionally exposed more than 1300 Guatemalans, including prisoners and mental institution patients, to syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid without informed consent, according to a special panel at Pitt charged with investigating whether Parran's name should be excised. The Guatemalan experiment was not made public until 2010, said Pitt's Office of Diversity and Inclusion Review Committee (ODIRC), in its report.

The ODIRC was established in January, after Donald Burke, MD, the dean of the graduate public health school, asked the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion to consider whether Parran's name should be removed.

Unanimous on Removal

After weighing Parran's history and his contributions to the field of public health — including helping to establish the World Health Organization and the Social Security Administration — the ODIRC unanimously decided that his oversight of the two STD experiments dictated removal of his name.

The committee said that Parran's "role, and the extent of his influence in approving, funding, and providing oversight of the Tuskegee and Guatemalan studies, is not entirely clear," but that, given his position as Surgeon General, he "bears some responsibility for the studies and their consequences, regardless of the exact level of his involvement."

Parran's "role as Surgeon General was sufficiently troubling to the committee to support a recommendation to remove his name from the building," they said.

The two studies "are fundamentally at odds with the University's core values, including the values of integrity, excellence, diversity and inclusion," said the ODIRC. And, they said, "the harm that resulted from these studies continues today."

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