Pitt chancellor urges renaming hall honoring dean tied to Tuskegee syphilis experiment
Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher recommended Monday that the school rename a housing complex because of its namesake’s association with experiments that involved infecting Guatemalans with syphilis and deceiving African-American men who had the disease.
Dr. Thomas Parran Jr., after whom a Graduate School of Public Health building is named, was the nation’s surgeon general from 1936 to 1948. He helped found the School of Public Health and was its first dean from 1948 until 1958, according to a report from a committee Pitt created to review the hall’s name.
The infamous Tuskegee study, in which researchers monitored syphilis in African-American men while falsely telling the men they were treating the disease, ran from 1932 to 1972. From 1946 to 1948, American researchers exposed more than 1,300 Guatemalans, including prisoners and mental institution patients, to syphilis and other diseases without informed consent, according to the report.
The university’s Board of Trustees named the hall for Parran in 1969, before either study became public.
Had the board known about the studies, they likely wouldn’t have named the hall for him, Gallagher wrote in his recommendation that the Board of Trustees rename the hall.
“Both studies conducted human trials on vulnerable populations without informed consent. These actions are fundamentally at odds with the university’s core values,” Gallagher wrote.
The committee reported that Parran’s level of knowledge or involvement in the studies “is not entirely clear,” but determined that because of his role as surgeon general at the time, he “bears some responsibility for the studies and their consequences, regardless of the exact level of his involvement.”
Harm from the Tuskegee study continues today because of a legacy of mistrust it engendered in African-Americans, according to the report.
The committee credited Parran for his “efforts to destigmatize venereal disease, pass the Social Security Act, and establish the World Health Organization,” but recommended renaming the building and continuing to educate students about the Tuskegee and Guatemala experiments.
“The power of symbols is not in what they are intended to convey, but in the messages that are received. For many in our community and beyond, the received message is that the University of Pittsburgh is celebrating a name associated with some of modern history’s most grievous racialized abuses in the research on human subjects,” the committee reported, adding concerns that the building’s name could deter people the university hopes to attract.
Dr. Donald Burke, the Graduate School of Public Health’s dean, requested a review of the school’s name in January. A petition to change the building’s name collected more than 1,300 signatures, according to the report.
Neither Gallagher nor the review committee recommended a new name for the hall.
Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, [email protected] or via Twitter @wesventeicher.