The Problem with Parran Hall
By: Morgan Gilmer
Last month, the statue of Stephen Foster was removed from its place next to Schenley Plaza in Oakland. The removal comes after years of controversy as the statue depicts Foster, the man who made songs like “Oh Susanna” famous, seated over an African-American man, appearing to be stealing songs from the caricature-like, banjo-playing man.
Just a few blocks away stands another structure with a controversial history that hasn’t been talked about quite enough.
Most undergraduate students at the University of Pittsburgh have never entered Parran Hall, the primary building of the graduate School of Public Health. The building stands at the base of De Soto Street. Still, if you looked up a picture of it now, I’m sure you would recognize it.
The building was named for Thomas Parran Jr., the sixth Surgeon General of the United States and, later, the first dean of the School of Public Health. Parran was an accomplished man–there’s no denying that–but on February 13th, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee began a campaign to rename Parran Hall.
Why? Because Thomas Parran Jr. was one of the leading scientists in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the lesser known Guatemala Syphilis Experiments. These experiments grossly violated a code of ethics that is held to any researcher who works with human subjects. Both experiments withheld information from infected participants and failed to gather informed consent. Today, these violations would be severe enough to, at the very least, discredit a scientist and their work, let alone remove their name from a university building.
Let’s talk about syphilis–the focus of these experiments. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (or STI) caused by a bacterium (T. pallidum). It can, however, pass to newborns from infected mothers. There are four stages to a syphilis infection–primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. The first few stages are marked by sores, chancres, and rashes. The final, or tertiary stage, often results in neurological and cardiac symptoms such as dementia and aortitis (which can form aneurysms).
Because syphilis is a bacterium it can be treated very effectively with antibiotics in the modern age–in the 1930s, however, treatment time and dosage was still hardly understood. It wasn’t until 1928 that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and antibiotics wouldn’t become widely used until 1942. The United States Public Health Service took it upon themselves to conduct studies about the nature of syphilis.
The experiment is known today as the “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”, but at the time it was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Black Male.” Its purpose was to observe the progression of untreated syphilis in African-American men.
Working with Tuskegee University, the U.S. Public Health Service studied 622 sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. It was Thomas Parran who suggested the location when he served as Health Commissioner to New York State. Later, as Surgeon General, he would oversee this study. The study was comprised of about 400 already-infected individuals and 200 unaffected individuals. Initially, the participants were told the study would last six months and that they would receive free health care, meals, and burial insurance from the United States government. Instead, the experiment ran for forty years, from 1932 to 1972.
Penicillin was accepted as the standard treatment for syphilis by 1947–that’s 25 years before the end of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. And yet, throughout the experiment, none of the participants were told that they would not be treated for their disease, nor did any participant receive penicillin. Instead, patients were told they were being treated for “bad blood”–a catch-all term used to describe syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. “Bad blood” was documented as the leading cause of death in southern African American communities.
In 1972, Peter Buxtun finally revealed these truths to the public, and the experiment was terminated in that year. By the end of the decade, the Belmont Report was issued. It summarizes ethical principles and guidelines for research with human subjects. Those guidelines fall under three core principles: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. Thomas Parran’s work violated all three of these principles.
In total, countless men died from syphilis or related illness. Forty women contracted the disease from their partner, and nineteen children were born with syphilis.
Lesser known experiments were conducted in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. In these experiments, soldiers, sex workers, prisoners, and mentally-ill patients were infected with syphilis without their consent. The experiment explicitly targeted groups who are now considered “vulnerable” or unable to choose or make a sound decision without outside interference.
Though many participants were treated, at least eighty-three individuals died in the experiment: eighty-three individuals who easily could have been saved with antibiotics. They had families or loved ones, and the team of scientists working on the experiment robbed them of their lives. This fails to account for the countless other individuals who died and were forgotten.
At a school that stresses respect for persons, justice, and beneficence in research, it’s appalling to pass by a building that bears Parran’s name. Most ethics courses cite the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment as one of the most infamous biomedical research studies; my psychology research methods course last semester named it specifically. Yet Parran Hall remains as a monument to a man who allowed countless African-American and Latinx people to die.
Parran Hall bears a sculpture called Man which is meant to symbolize “the human quest for knowledge.” You’ve likely seen it. Perhaps that is how Parran and the other scientists envisioned themselves as they abused black and Latinx people in their research. Knowledge never justifies the mistreatment of human subjects. The University of Pittsburgh acknowledges this in its research, but these words do not go far when such a prominent building still bears the name of Thomas Parran.
You can sign the petition here. Make your voice heard, and tell the University of Pittsburgh that we won’t stand for this. Thomas Parran Jr. undoubtably allowed the deaths of countless individuals and failed to conduct his research ethically. It is imperative that Pitt acknowledges that the name “Parran” symbolizes institutionalized racism and a horrific history of violence against vulnerable populations.