H

e was surgeon general under President Franklin Roosevelt. He’s been lauded for turning sexually transmitted diseases from a moral failing into a medical concern. During the height of segregation, he acknowledged the need to stem health disparities between black and white America.

But Dr. Thomas Parran Jr., whose name graces the main building of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, has also been called an architect of the syphilis experiments on black men and women in Tuskegee, Ala. While he was surgeon general, he was also aware that U.S. public health researchers were intentionally infecting with syphilis Guatemalan people who were mentally ill or in prison, in the name of research.

Now, under pressure from students who say Parran’s role in these experiments shows his disregard for human lives, the university is grappling with whether to strip his name from the building, and by default, the school he helped found after decades of public service.

“This isn’t who we are anymore,” said Helen Ann Lawless, a second-year graduate student in the public health school who is part of the push to get the building’s name changed. “We are still attached to this legacy … we can’t have his name on our building because it venerates him.”

Parran’s family disagrees. His grandson, John C. Parran, and his great nephew, Richard Kirkpatrick, told STAT in an email that their grandfather and great uncle saved millions of lives during his career through the work he did to improve public health. They suggest keeping his name on the building, but fostering conversations about the experiments in Tuskegee and Guatemala through ethics courses.

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“No one is perfect,” Parran and Kirkpatrick said. “The name [on the building] does not ‘celebrate’ my grandfather and grand uncle. Rather, it honors the passion he had for furthering public health awareness and education as means for improving the health and well-being of all people.”

Erasing a name from a building isn’t straightforward. And it isn’t the first time Pitt has faced pressure to rename it.

But in an era when schools and local governments are being newly pressed to reconsider the old legacies, this time might be different.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study
In this 1950s photo released by the National Archives, a man included in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments has blood drawn. National Archives via AP

In Tuskegee, experiments without proper consent

In 1932, in the early days of the Depression, federal health researchers started the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, the forerunner agency to the Department of Health and Human Services, enrolled 600 black men — 399 with syphilis and 201 without. The men were offered food, medical exams, and burial insurance. They were not offered treatment throughout the 40 years that the experiment went on, even when, 15 years later, penicillin had become the standard of care. Some infected their wives.

The men with syphilis were not told they had the disease; rather, they were told they had “bad blood.”

Lillie Tyson Head remembers the day her father found out he had been part of the study. He had congenital syphilis.

“My father didn’t know about this study until everybody knew,” said Head, referring to an Associated Press story from the early 1970s widely credited with exposing the unethical treatment of the study participants. “He was a bit ashamed of what had happened.”

When Parran’s role in devising the syphilis experiments first came to Head’s attention last summer, she was torn. Back then, changing the name of the building didn’t seem right, she told STAT. She preferred the idea of creating memorial plaques for the men in the study and ensuring students were aware of the Tuskegee chapter of Parran’s career.

But now, she said, the university needs to change the name, and then do more, not just in the public health school, but also across the campus.

“After the name’s changed, then what? What will be done? What will the university do to talk about social and racial disparity?” said Head, who now leads the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, which represents families who were part of the experiments at Tuskegee.

But the conversation about renaming the public health school has bled outside Parran Hall.

Daniel Jacobson, a graduate student in social work and the president of the Latin American Graduate Organization of Students at Pitt, said Parran’s role in dehumanizing Latinos through the Guatemala syphilis experiments should not be lost in the debate.

Jacobson said participants in those experiments were devalued and even preyed upon. The United States apologized to Guatemala for the episode in 2010, but it wasn’t until the following year that Parran’s role in the tests received wide attention.

“This is a marginalized group,” Jacobson said, referring to the people used in the Guatemala experiments. “No one is going to care about these people.”

Like other Pitt students who spoke to STAT, Jenea Lyles learned about the syphilis experiments at Tuskegee when she was younger, but did not know about Parran’s involvement. She’s part of a black activism group on campus, and among the students pushing the university to drop his name from the public health school building. She’s pre-med, she said, in the hopes of rebuilding some of the lost trust in her community.

“They recently renamed K. Leroy Irvis Hall,” Lyles said, referring to another building on campus once called Pennsylvania Hall, now renamed after a former black speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. “So Parran should be, too.”

Pitt Parran Hall
Parran Hall on the the University of Pittsburgh campus. Ronald Woan/Creative Commons

Pitt nears a decision

Although Pitt has faced numerous efforts to change the name, the latest attempt gained momentum last year.

Then, in January, Dr. Donald Burke, the dean of the public health school, penned a letter to the university’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity. After several months of discussion, including with students, he asked that the office form a committee to address “whether the name ‘Parran Hall’ is consistent with the university’s mission to create a diverse and inclusive environment.”

Burke said in his letter that Parran’s legacy had been of concern since the former surgeon general’s role in the Guatemala tests came to light in 2011. At that time, the discussion centered around a doctor named John C. Cutler, also a former dean at Pitt, and the person widely credited with carrying out the experiments in Guatemala. (A lecture series in Cutler’s name was changed.)

In early April, the university held a panel discussion on Parran and his legacy. Speakers included a team of academics, but Parran’s grandson, who lives in the Pittsburgh area, said he was not invited to participate, and Head said neither was anyone from the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation.

The recommendations of the committee empaneled to consider the issue will be released when they are ready, said school officials. Any change to the name would have to be voted on by the university’s board of trustees.

The university does not receive any contributions from Parran’s family or estate in connection with the name of Parran Hall.

Parran and Kirkpatrick said they appreciate the way in which the university is handling the process but are troubled that Thomas Parran is being judged based on today’s norms instead of being seen through a historical lens.

Doing so means “both good and bad” will be expunged from history, they said.

Lawless, the public health graduate student, said she thinks the university’s choice is clear. While she was happy to get into Pitt — she wanted to pursue a joint master’s degree in social work — she’s frustrated that the darker side of Parran’s past was long overlooked. During her orientation, she recalled, no one mentioned his connection to Tuskegee or Guatemala. She and some of her other classmates only found out later.

“That was kind of earth-shattering to us,” she said.

This story has been amended to reflect under which president Parran was surgeon general.

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  • Mark
    Isn’t the American version of the English language interesting
    Lead is both a metallic compound and a term to describe a compound that has pharmaceutical potential but whose structure is not optimal and or suitable for effective use in humans
    Yes it as you suggested an arsenical but I wouldn’t hold my breath on seeing more of them regardless of the antibiotic resistance of current bacteria the downside is FAR too dangerous
    More likely to see some totally revisionary approaches
    Have you seen the current research on using LptD and LptE? If it works and they can synthesize a safe compound then the bacterial will likely never be able to form resistance to them since they never actually need to go into the bacteria to function they bluff the bacteria so their cell walls no longer allow transportation of necessary nutrients
    A long way away but…..
    Sorry for the confusion in lead vs lead vs lead vs. leader 🙂
    Dr. Dave

  • Mark
    If you know anything about Salvarsan then you know it was not a reasonable solution since first off it was lead-based and then according to this excellent narrative this sums it up:
    “It was distributed as a yellow, crystalline, hygroscopic powder that was highly unstable in air. This significantly complicated administration, as the drug had to be dissolved in several hundred milliliters of distilled, sterile water with minimal exposure to air to produce a solution suitable for injection. Some of the side effects attributed to Salvarsan, including rashes, liver damage, and risks of life and limb, were thought to be caused by improper handling and administration. This caused Ehrlich {who developed it for Hoechst AG}, who worked assiduously to standardize practices, to observe, “the step from the laboratory to the patient’s bedside … is extraordinarily arduous and fraught with danger.”
    So not really a solution for community disease management may be for the middle class who would be in reasonable contact with physicians but this black community didn’t have contact with physicians at ALL they didn’t exist
    In 2018 it is mind-boggling to think a community exists in the USA without a physician or community healthcare but back then they were ALL over the South. It was more than the Gov didn’t actively assist and more like supervised the existing neglect then they actually caused the issue by their actions. MOST of these men were sick already but no doubt they did lie to them with false promises of care and money etc. SOME were actively given the disease but FAR more already had it
    The issue was there was NO care, to begin with, so the Fed
    Dr. D

    • I do know something about Salvarsan, and I know it doesn’t have any lead in it. It is an arsenical. It has been described as the first blockbuster drug. Salvarsan and its successor, Neosalvarsan, were standard-of-care for syphilis for four decades. It’s possible we’ll see the arsenicals make a comeback if the problem with multidrug-resistant bacteria becomes worse. They are effective and useful medicines.

  • Dr. Dave, the Tuskegee experiment lasted until 1972 – penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in 1947… And the experiment was officially titled “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”, which proves that the lack of any treatment resulted from a deliberate decision. And the participants of the study “believed they were receiving treatment, … were thwarted at each juncture at which they sought outside treatment, and … were threatened with losing free medical care and death benefits if they lefft the study…” (A.L. Fairchild and R. Bayer, “Uses and Abuses of Tuskegee”, in: “Tuskegee’s Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study”, ed. by S.M. Reverby, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2000, p. 590)

    As I mentioned earlier, Parran wrote in 1932 that it would be a good idea to “study the natural history of syphilis in the Negro race uninfluenced by treatment” in Macon County, Alabama. He was surely much more responsible for the experiment than you suggest – and some even believe that he was its architect.

    You say that Black people in Alabama had no medical care at that time and so could “be watched for a long time without any typical interference” – doesn’t it blatantly prove the inhumanity of the researchers who saw these poor people as their guinea pigs?

    Your dad was not responsible for inhuman experiments or any other atrocities, and you know that no one in their right senses will ever denounce your dad for fighting Nazi Germany. I have no idea why you seem to suggest that people who want Parran Hall to be renamed can be compared to those who might think in some hypothetical future that “Hitler was not so bad” and denounce those who fought Nazism…

  • Dr. Dave, it is simply not true that there was “NO treatment that worked”… These men did not get penicillin even after it began to be used as a treatment for syphilis in 1947. The experiment was not a result of “poor thought process on medical research”. Just ask yourself why only Black men were chosen for this criminal experiment… Parran wrote in 1932 “If one wished to study the natural history of syphilis in the Negro race uninfluenced by treatment,” Macon County, Alabama “would be an ideal location for such a study.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-secret-story-of-how-a-revered-future-surgeon-general-inspired-the-tuskegee-syphilis-study He clearly saw Black men as suitable guinea pigs… Let me add that the Nazis were actually influenced by the state-sanctioned racism in the United States.

    • Joanna
      The WHOLE idea was to discover why a population was sicker than another
      You are looking at this thru 2018 eyes NOT 1932 eyes
      Back then syphilis was “bad blood” we knew it was some organism but we had NO drug until the 1940s that treated it with expectation.
      The WHOLE reason for the study and I am NOT condoning the mess but trying to take the emotion out of it is that we needed a platform to study a DISEASE not a treatment
      The Alabama negro (at that time or black community actually didn’t have medical care so walking in and watching this scourge in a population was the best-isolated incubator available
      Where else could a population be watched for a long time without any typical interference?
      THAT was the goal. When Bismuth was tried it failed. It was only when Sulfa was discovered was there any potentially viable solution and only a SMALL number resulted in success. YES Pennicilin was the real deal but that wasn’t for 14 years
      The MONSTER was why it was continued until 1972
      Realize that this man was only the Administrator of the US Health Service during the study. He was no boots on the ground and surely was responsible for things by signing off on them but at the time it looked like a potential for HUGE discovery about disease transmission and why in a population of 1K men only 400 got it when their lifestyles, interactions, religion etc, were similar
      The US Health Service did NOT walk into Asheville or Monticello with their existing high lifestyle and routine medical care and infect everyone then withhold care they simply allowed a community of no medical care to do its own thing to monitor what happens to a disease and how it spreads all the while forgetting to shut it down
      It took Clinton to actually shut it down so think of all the POTUSes who are AS guilty as this man for allowing this BUT we never dream of taking their photos down in the WH or removing their libraries names
      I am incensed about the trials as the next guy but this man is no mastermind and no evil demon he was the head of an organization that along with this terrible mess also gave the US:
      Medicare, Social Security, the NIH, and numerous other MAJOR achievements in his tenure.
      U of Pitt obviously had enough donors who preferred the name over others because the alumni paid to have this school built. EVERY “school” or building at any university or hospital is named so based on actual individual dollars sent in to accomplish the building. If the students were not impressed with his leadership they would not have built the school with their dollars (although surely there were other funds as well, but there HAS to be a bulk donation to finally determine the name)
      My dad was no saint (being married 3 times) but was on the WSJ 3 times and built a huge empire with ONLY an 8th-grade education. There will be a cancer research center built in his honor here in Florida in the future based on the funds my cousins and I have donated. In 100 years will someone dig up that he fought in WW2 as a Jewish American against the Axis and if we decide that Hitler was “not so bad” will the center be renamed because he fought to stop Nazi Germany’s advance???? Will someone discover that one of our divisions made dog food and we used scraps from human butcher shops as part of the food will they picket to rename the center?
      The point is when it happened things were viewed differently with less of a focus on what is now important. Who KNOWS what the future brings but the point is what it is and what will be can be whatever it wants to be
      The University of Pitt can open a NEW School and call it the Tuskeegee/Guatemalan STD research Center BUT that doesn’t alter the existing school
      Same with statues. Once they are up they stay up if you want to clarify details, by all means, post bronze plaques to describe the issues but the history at the time suggested that the need was appropriate for the statue to be built. Who are we to tell those people back then they were wrong
      Dr. D

    • It’s not true there was NO drug for treating syphilis at that time. There was Salvarsan.

  • Reading some of these letters is pathetic. What this man did is light years below the moral compass. The pain and suffering these people went through was horrific. Changing the name is the least that can be done. It would be fascinating to see how these morally retarded people would respond if their relatives and loved ones had experienced the horrors these innocent people went through.

    • Might want to read more about Parran he was the surgeon general of the US-appointed by Roosevelt and was the director of the committee to create Social Security
      The man was an administrator during the initiation of the syphilis studies which by the way continued thru to 1972 from its inception in 1936
      This is no Mengle or Himler or the like
      He single-handedly shifted the US position on “bad blood” from a moral condemnation issue to a real communicable disease in need of treatment
      He was instrumental in getting Sulfa and Penicillin accepted as treatments for syphilis and other STDs
      No, he was no saint as ultimately the fish rots from its head but then shouldn’t Roosevelt be blamed as well since not only did he appoint him personally after initially appointing him as NY surgeon general but why not blame every POTUS since as well?
      I am ALL in agreement that the 1K black men who suffered as a result of the stupid “study” were wronged by the process but this was not willful intent it was their piss poor thought process on medical research
      They had NO intention to dose them and watch them die they just had NO treatment that worked and after they did it was too late and or too embarrassing
      We digress here as the issue is not the study but the issue of trying to sterile the US of anything that has any taint or less than 100% positive value
      Dr. D

  • Dr. Dave, I think that Rodney Graham is right… Would you have the same approach towards Parran if your family had been affected by the Tuskegee experiment? Remembering history is not the same as accepting a situation where a university hall bears the name of a man probably responsible for a horrifying experiment where Black men were treated like guinea pigs and left to die from a curable disease…

    The Tuskegee study was not merely “ill-informed” – it was deeply inhuman and racist. Doesn’t it make you think of Nazi medical experiments? It’s not about “abolishing” Parran, but in my opinion he is not worthy of having a university hall named after him… The American Sexually Transmitted Disease Association has already changed the name of the lifetime achievement “Thomas Parran Award” to “The ASTDA Distinguished Career Award” – and I think that it was a step in the right direction.

    • Did you research all the positives of Parran or only the ones in this article? We are SO invested in accepting the media’s spin on everything today it makes me sick
      Do a LEGITIMATE search and learn about why a prestigious university actually decided to name it after him, to begin with.
      Don’t accept the April 2018 Spin cycle because of the current “everyone hates blacks, therefore….” mindset but take a look at the entire picture. Are you paying for or collecting Social Security? Do you get or expect to get Medicare when you get retired? Well you wouldn’t have either one if it wasn’t for Parran
      Do you realize that syphilis and gonorrhea are atleast partly under control in the US because of this man’s efforts? The community approach to STDs as we see them today is ALL about this man’s direction to treating them. Up until his approach, the STD issues (and there are over 25 different STD so not only syphilis is part of his review) were all seen as a social community behavioral concern. Basically, it was NOT viewed like we do today as an infection it was seen like we saw AIDS/HIV in the 1980’s “people doing bad things getting what they deserve”
      It was only Parran who realized that people act accordingly and some get sick while others don’t and how to PROPERLY intercede as a society to keep things under control
      Penicillin was NOT the issue. This was NOT about withholding drugs it was about changing the way we looked at disease and disease transmission
      I started my career right before the HIV/Aids mess and I can tell you there was EXACTLY the same mindset in the US population about it as there was back in the 30’s about STDs
      It was ONLY as a result of Robert Gallo and Harvey Milk we would still agree with the idiot “Jerry Falwell who echoed the sentiments of some conservative Americans by declaring God had sent AIDS as retribution for the sins of drug using and gay communities”
      That is how the US saw syphilis NOT as some communicable disease on par with Polio which was at the IDENTICAL time wiping out thousands of people (including Roosevelt himself) but instead, a social “revenge” for being promiscuous and or “free-living” Afterall white folks were as susceptible so what was the difference?
      Equate syphilis to the 1980’s view or Syphilis and you can see why the excitement for Parran and Gallo. There were THOUSANDS of AIDs victims who were refused AZT for the study that started in the 1980’s and wasn’t released for commercial use until 1996
      It was invented in 1987 and released in 1996 so are the FDA administrators and Surgeon Generals also in the Parran bucket of guilt?
      Dr. D

  • Rodney
    Sorry mi amigo but I am Jewish and I have NO desire to see the entire issue of WW2 swept under the rug so that in a hundred years from now no one even knows what happened
    3 weeks ago was the World Remembrance day; in Israel, they LITERALLY shut down the nation for 3 minutes. Cars stop in the middle of 6 lane highways and people stop walking. Air-raid sirens blast all over the nation to remember 6 million people who were killed.
    Here in American, a survey of 1000 freshman college students determined that less than 70% knew about 6 million deaths although all knew the names Nazi and Hitler 30% could not explain what it was about and why the entire world was tossed into turmoil, PATHETIC!
    There is 10% of the US population that disbelieves that the Holocaust ever happened and so would I be the first to request that names be changed and statues be lifted? HELL NO
    I would be the first to request a bronze sign on EVERY place with a dual aspect to post the facts so that the world understands we are all human and that this physician although he made some amazing inroads was also in charge of some research that was ill-informed and led to suffering
    The only way to not relive history is to remember and memorialize it so that future generations can learn
    Do we abolish Einstein and Oppenheimer and Roosevelt for creating nuclear bombs and for annihilating two entire cities in Japan which ended the largest war the world has ever seen?
    HARDLY
    “If we forget history we shall surely relive it” (Ben Franklin)
    As they say in Israel “we shall never forget”
    Dr. Dave

    • This is a ridiculous argument. No one is suggesting he be erased from history books or that we not learn from his mistakes, only that he not be honored by having a building named after him given our present-day perspective on how unethical some of his behavior was. The only way to learn isn’t from buildings and statues memorializing people who don’t deserve that honor. That’s what school is for.

  • I have read articles about this and the syphisilis experiment being done to the black soldiers during that time. Also, that penicillin became available, these people were refused treatment. This show that time haven’t changed the thoughts of some regarding Black America!

  • We need to wake up in the US and stop expecting everyone to be feeling “supported” and “comfortable”
    The bottom line is that this man and many others are the reason the US is the number 1 nation in the world. SURE he made and or supervised errors but at the time it wasn’t considered an issue
    Now with perfect hindsight and a different moral focus, we disapprove of his actions like we have of the many many Confederate leaders who without them the nation would be in a much different political situation and even Ben Franklin and Washington and Jefferson for their acceptance of behaviors that today are unacceptable
    It is MUCH better to place these people in context to their entire actions rather than to try to remove them from the history books like so many are trying to do
    Sure you can rename a university school but that doesn’t make this man’s achievements any different or errors any less
    If we want perfection both in current reference and future reference we need to start to name schools and places based on numbers and not names
    University of Pittsburgh #235 Scholl of Public Health is the only way to ensure it survives the generations
    How pathetic to see all the statues all over the US being removed and destroyed because liberals of the 2018’s feel psychologically harmed!
    Buy some big boy panties and get ready it is a cruel world out here everyone and time to stop looking to make yourself feel comfortable at the expense of everyone else’s feeling and attempting to shame the opposition to not oppose you is despicable
    Dr. Dave

    • If it was your family that was treated this way you would be the first to call for a name change on that building.

    • I agree. If this tear down the haters style campaign continues Washington, DC, Washington State, and many cities will have to be renamed because you know slavery. History is complicated and at times ugly and we need to accept that reality. It is a reflection of the good and the bad in human beings. Do we really want to throw away everything good because of the (relatively) small bit of bad that certain individuals have done? If we did that I think maybe only Mother Teresa would be left. Or should we learn from it, keep the discussions happening and realize people then and now are complex?

      Tearing down a statue doesn’t absolve or undo crimes of the past.

    • I agree.

      We should stop naming buildings, schools and other things to honor people. Far too often these idols have feet of clay. When we know of the conduct that makes association with them a disgrace, we should name the building after the event, rather than the criminals who perpetrated it.

      How about the “Tuskegee/Guatemalan Building”? With some plaques distributed about explaining why a school in Pittsburgh has such a name?

      No forgetting the past. But also no honor to those responsible for atrocities.

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