February 24, 2024

What do you do when a medical hero is also a villain?

Thomas Parran is now persona non grata.

Former US Surgeon General Thomas Parran was best known for his work in championing a revolutionary public health campaign against syphilis in the United States in the 1930s and 40s. Some say that his initiative saved the lives of tens of millions of Americans — and transformed the public’s view of syphilis from being a sign of moral weakness to a genuine public health problem.  

Yet recent research has tarnished the influential doctor’s reputation, and even led a US university to consider stripping his name from a major campus building.

Parran has been implicated in the infamous 1932-1972 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a federally-funded medical trial that involved the deliberate withholding of syphilis treatment from hundreds of African-American males. A 2013 essay by two prominent US medical historians suggested that the idea for a syphilis experiment on African American males came from Parran’s writings. Historians Allen Hornblum and Gregory Dober quote several documents that indicate that Parran was contemplating the idea of a Tuskegee-style experiment. In a January 1932 memo, Parran wrote of Macon County, Alabama: “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.”

After his retirement from the office of Surgeon General, Parran worked with academics from the University of Pittsburgh to establish a school of public health — indeed, he was the first dean of the school, and had the school building named after him. But now both students and staff at the university are demanding that the name be changed, labelling Parran’s legacy a “scandal” to new students.

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

The University has established a committee to consider whether Parran’s name should be removed.

What do you do when a medical hero is also a villain?
Xavier Symons
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