Surgeon General of the United States

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US Public Health Service
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US Public Health Service Cap Device

The Surgeon General of the United States is the head of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC) and thus the leading spokesperson on matters of public health in the U.S. government.

The Surgeon General is nominated by the U.S. President and confirmed via majority vote by the Senate. The Surgeon General serves a four year term of office and is commissioned as a Vice Admiral in the PHSCC.[1] In carrying out all responsibilities, the Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health, who is the principal advisor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services on public health and scientific issues, and is the overall head of the United States Public Health Service (PHS).

The former Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Richard Carmona, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002, left office when his term expired on July 31, 2006.[2] Rear Admiral Kenneth P. Moritsugu is functioning as the Acting Surgeon General.[3]

On May 24, 2007, President Bush nominated Dr. James W. Holsinger, Jr., a University of Kentucky medical professor to be the 18th Surgeon General of the United States.[4]

The Surgeon General functions under the direction of the Assistant Secretary for Health and operationally heads the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the USPHS, a cadre of health professionals who are on call 24 hours a day, and can be dispatched by the Secretary of HHS or the Assistant Secretary for Health in the event of a public health emergency. The Surgeon General is also the ultimate award authority for several public health awards and decorations, the highest of which that can be directly awarded is the Surgeon General's Medal (the highest award bestowed by board action is the Distinguished Service Medal).

The Surgeon General also has many informal duties, such as educating the American public about health issues and advocating healthy lifestyle choices.

The office also periodically issues health warnings. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Surgeon General's Warning labels that can be found on all packages of American cigarettes. A health warning also appears on alcoholic beverages.

Past American Surgeons General have often been characterized by their outspoken personalities and often controversial proposals on how to reform the U.S. health system. Because the office is not a particularly powerful one, and has little direct impact on policy-making, Surgeons General are often vocal advocates of unconventional, unusual, or even unpopular health policies. Vice Admiral C. Everett Koop and Vice Admiral Joycelyn Elders were two former Surgeons General who were well known for their controversial ideas, especially on sex education.

The U.S. Public Health Service was under the direction of the Office of the Surgeon General and was an independent government agency until 1953 at which point it was integrated into the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and later into the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Although the U.S. Public Health Service and the Surgeon General were at various times under the umbrella of the Department of the Treasury or the Federal Security Agency, the agency operated with a substantial amount of independence.

The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force also have officers overseeing medical matters in their respective services who hold the title Surgeon General.

Service rank

The Surgeon General is a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, and by law holds the rank of Vice Admiral[1]. Officers of the PHSCC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps (NOAA Corps) are classified as non-combatants, but can be subjected to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the Geneva Conventions when designated by the Commander-in-Chief as a military force. Officer members of these services wear uniforms that are similar to those worn by the U.S. Navy, except that the commissioning devices, buttons, and insignia are unique. Officers in PHS and NOAA wear unique devices which are similar to U.S. Navy Staffing Corps Officers (e.g., Medical Services Corps, Supply Corps, etc).

Surgeons General of the United States

No. Name Term of Office Appointed by
1 John Maynard Woodworth March 29, 1871March 14, 1879 Ulysses S. Grant
2 John B. Hamilton April 3, 1879June 1, 1891 Rutherford B. Hayes
3 Walter Wyman June 1, 1891November 21, 1911 Benjamin Harrison
4 Rupert Blue January 13, 1912March 3, 1920 William Taft
5 Hugh S. Cumming March 3, 1920January 31, 1936 Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge
6 Thomas Parran, Jr. April 6, 1936April 6, 1948 Franklin D. Roosevelt
7 Leonard A. Scheele April 6, 1948August 8, 1956 Harry S. Truman
8 LeRoy Edgar Burney August 1, 1956January 29, 1961 Dwight Eisenhower
9 Luther Leonidas Terry March 2, 1961October 1 1965 John F. Kennedy
10 William H. Stewart October 1, 1965August 1, 1969 Lyndon Johnson
11 Jesse Leonard Steinfeld December 18, 1969June 30, 1973 Richard Nixon
Paul Ehrlich, Jr (acting) July 1, 1973July 13, 1977 Richard Nixon
12 Julius B. Richmond July 13, 1977May 14, 1981 Jimmy Carter
Edward Brandt, Jr. (acting) May 14, 1981January 21, 1982 Ronald Reagan
13 C. Everett Koop January 21, 1982October 1, 1989 Ronald Reagan
James O. Mason (acting) October 1, 1989March 9, 1990 George H. W. Bush
14 Antonia Coello Novello March 9, 1990June 30, 1993 George H. W. Bush
Robert A. Whitney (acting) July 1, 1993September 8, 1993 Bill Clinton
15 Joycelyn Elders September 8, 1993December 31, 1994 Bill Clinton
Audrey F. Manley (acting) January 1, 1995July 1, 1997 Bill Clinton
16 David Satcher February 13, 1998August 5, 2002 Bill Clinton
17 Richard Carmona August 5, 2002July 31, 2006 George W. Bush
Kenneth P. Moritsugu (acting) August 1, 2006September 30, 2007 George W. Bush
Steven K. Galson (acting) October 1, 2007 George W. Bush


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