Surgeon General of the United States

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Surgeon General of the
United States
United States Public Health Service (seal).svg
Seal of the United States Public Health Service, 1798
Flag of the United States Surgeon General.svg
Flag of the United States Surgeon General
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, USPHS.jpg
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy

since December 18, 2014
Public Health Service
Public Health Service, Commissioned Corps
Reports to United States Assistant Secretary for Health
Seat Hubert H. Humphrey Building, United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Washington, D.C.
Appointer The President
with United States Senate advice and consent
Term length 4 years
Formation March 29, 1871
Deputy Deputy Surgeon General of the United States

The Surgeon General of the United States is the operational head of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC) and thus the leading spokesperson on matters of public health in the federal government of the United States. The Surgeon General's office and staff are known as the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG).

The U.S. Surgeon General is nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by a majority vote of the Senate. The Surgeon General serves a four-year term of office and, depending on whether the current Assistant Secretary for Health is a PHSCC commissioned officer or not, is the senior or second-highest ranking uniformed officer of the PHSCC, holding the rank of a vice admiral.[1][2] The current Surgeon General is Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, who was confirmed on December 15, 2014.[3]


Seal of the U.S. Public Health Service, 1798

The Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health (ASH), who may be a four-star admiral in the United States Public Health Service, Commissioned Corps (PHSCC), and who serves as the principal adviser to the Secretary of Health and Human Services on public health and scientific issues. The Surgeon General is the overall head of the Commissioned Corps, a 6,500-member 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 Medallion (the highest award bestowed by board action is the Public Health Service 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 tobacco cigarettes since 1966. A similar health warning appears on alcoholic beverages labels, since 1988.


US Public Health Service Collar Device
US Public Health Service Cap Device

In 1798, Congress established the Marine Hospital Fund, a network of hospitals that cared for sick and disabled seamen. The Marine Hospital Fund was reorganized along military lines in 1870 and became the Marine Hospital Service—predecessor to today’s United States Public Health Service. The service became a separate bureau of the Treasury Department with its own staff, administration, headquarters in Washington, D.C, and the position of Supervising Surgeon (later Surgeon General).[4]

After 141 years under the Treasury Department, the Service came under the Federal Security Agency in 1939, then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in 1953, and finally the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Some Surgeons General are notable for being outspoken and/or advocating controversial proposals on how to reform the U.S. health system.[citation needed] The office is not a particularly powerful one, and has little direct statutary impact on policy-making, but Surgeons General are often vocal advocates (with 26th President Theodore Roosevelt's practice of "The Bully Pulpit" in the early 20th Century) of precedent-setting, far-sighted, unconventional or even unpopular health policies.

  • On January 11, 1964, Rear Admiral Luther Leonidas Terry, M.D., published a landmark report saying that smoking may be hazardous to health,[5] sparking nationwide anti-smoking efforts. Terry and his committee defined cigarette smoking of nicotine as not an addiction. (The committee itself consisted largely of physicians who themselves smoked.) This error went uncorrected for 24 years.[6]
  • In 1986, Vice Admiral Dr. C. Everett Koop's report on AIDS called for some form of AIDS education in the early grades of elementary school, and gave full support for using condoms for disease prevention.[7] He also resisted pressure from the Reagan administration to report that abortion was psychologically harmful to women, stating he believed it was a moral issue rather than one concerning the public health.
  • In 1994, Vice Admiral Dr. Joycelyn Elders had spoken at a United Nations conference on AIDS. She was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, and she replied, "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught."[8] Elders had also spoken in favor of studying drug legalization. In a reference to the national abortion issue, she said "We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children.".[9] She was fired by President Bill Clinton in December 1994.

After the resignation of Dr. Regina Benjamin in July 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy, to be the nation's next Surgeon General, but the nomination was not advanced until December 2014 due to a delayed confirmation vote in the Senate because conservative lawmakers and the National Rifle Association objected to his views on firearms.[10]

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

The insignia of the Surgeon General, and the USPHS, use the caduceus as opposed to the Rod of Asclepius.

Service rank

The stars, shoulder boards, and sleeve stripes of the Surgeon General

The Surgeon General is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, and by law holds the rank of vice admiral.[2] Officers of the Public Health Service Commissioned 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 or if they are detailed or assigned to work with the armed forces. Officer members of these services wear uniforms that are similar to those worn by the United States Navy, except that the commissioning devices, buttons, and insignia are unique. Officers in the U.S. Public Health Service wear unique devices that are similar to U.S. Navy, Staff Corps Officers (e.g., Navy Medical Service Corps, Supply Corps, etc.).

The only Surgeon General to actually hold the rank of a four-star admiral was David Satcher (born 1941, served 1998–2002). This was because he served simultaneously in the positions of Surgeon General (three-star) and Assistant Secretary for Health (which is a four-star office).[11] John Maynard Woodworth, (1837-1879, served 1871–1879), the first holder of the office as "Supervising Surgeon", is the only Surgeon General to not hold a rank.

Surgeons General of the United States

Photo Term of Office Appointed by
Start Of Term End Of Term
1 John M. Woodworth
John Maynard Woodworth by Hermann Günther, 1865.jpg March 29, 1871 March 14, 1879 Ulysses S. Grant
2 RADM John B. Hamilton
John B Hamilton.jpg April 3, 1879 June 1, 1891 Rutherford B. Hayes
President Rutherford Hayes 1870 - 1880.jpg
3 RADM Walter Wyman
Walter Wyman, photograph by Stalee.jpg June 1, 1891 November 21, 1911 Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison, head and shoulders bw photo, 1896.jpg
4 RADM Rupert Blue
Rupert Blue.jpg January 13, 1912 March 3, 1920 William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft.jpg
5 RADM Hugh S. Cumming
Hugh S Cumming.gif March 3, 1920 January 31, 1936 Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson portrait December 2 1912.jpg
6 RADM Thomas Parran, Jr.
Thomas Parran, Jr., photo portrait as surgeon general.jpg April 6, 1936 April 6, 1948 Franklin D. Roosevelt
FDR in 1933.jpg
7 RADM Leonard A. Scheele
Leonard Scheele, photo portrait as surgeon general.jpg April 6, 1948 August 8, 1956 Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman.jpg
8 RADM Leroy Edgar Burney
Leroy Edgar Burney, photo portrait as surgeon general.jpg August 8, 1956 January 29, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower, official photo portrait, May 29, 1959.jpg
9 RADM Luther Terry
Luther Terry photo portrait as surgeon general.jpg March 2, 1961 October 1, 1965 John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy, White House photo portrait, looking up.jpg
10 VADM William H. Stewart
William H. Stewart, photo portrait as surgeon general.jpg October 1, 1965 August 1, 1969 Lyndon Johnson
37 Lyndon Johnson 3x4.jpg
11 RADM Jesse Leonard Steinfeld
Jesse Leonard Steinfeld, photo portrait as surgeon general.jpg December 18, 1969 January 30, 1973 [12] Richard Nixon
Richard M. Nixon, ca. 1935 - 1982 - NARA - 530679.jpg
N/A RADM S. Paul Ehrlich, Jr.
Acting Surgeon General
January 31, 1973 [13] July 13, 1977
12 VADM Julius B. Richmond
Julius Richmond, Surgeon General official photo.jpg July 13, 1977 January 20, 1981 [14] Jimmy Carter
Carter cropped.jpg
N/A Edward Brandt, Jr.
Acting Surgeon General
May 14, 1981 January 21, 1982 Ronald Reagan
Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981-cropped.jpg
13 VADM C. Everett Koop
C. Everett Koop, 1980s.jpg January 21, 1982 October 1, 1989
N/A ADM James O. Mason
Acting Surgeon General
James O. Mason.jpg October 1, 1989 March 9, 1990 George H. W. Bush
43 George H.W. Bush 3x4.jpg
14 VADM Antonia C. Novello
VADM Antonia Novello.jpg March 9, 1990 June 30, 1993
N/A RADM Robert A. Whitney
Acting Surgeon General
RADM Robert A Whitney Jr.jpg July 1, 1993 September 8, 1993 Bill Clinton
44 Bill Clinton 3x4.jpg
15 VADM Joycelyn Elders
Joycelyn Elders official photo portrait.jpg September 8, 1993 December 31, 1994
N/A RADM Audrey F. Manley
Acting Surgeon General
Audrey Manley, DHHS official bw photo.jpg January 1, 1995 July 1, 1997
16 ADM[11] / VADM David Satcher
David Satcher official photo portrait.jpg February 13, 1998 February 12, 2002
N/A RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu
Acting Surgeon General
Kenneth P. Mortitsugu.jpg February 13, 2002 August 4, 2002 George W. Bush
17 VADM Richard Carmona
Richard carmona.jpg August 5, 2002 July 31, 2006
N/A RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu
Acting Surgeon General
Kenneth P. Mortitsugu.jpg August 1, 2006 September 30, 2007
RADM Steven K. Galson
Acting Surgeon General
Steven K Galson.jpg October 1, 2007 October 1, 2009
RADM Donald L. Weaver
Acting Surgeon General
Donald L. Weaver official portrait.jpg October 1, 2009 November 3, 2009 Barack Obama
Obama portrait crop.jpg
18 VADM Regina Benjamin[15]
Regina Benjamin official portrait.jpg November 3, 2009[16] July 16, 2013
N/A RADM Boris D. Lushniak
Acting Surgeon General
RADM Boris Lushniak acting Surgeon General.jpg July 17, 2013 December 18, 2014
19 VADM Vivek H. Murthy
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, USPHS.jpg December 18, 2014 Incumbent

See also


  1. [1] 42 USC 207. Grades, ranks, and titles of commissioned corps.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Public Health, Commissioned Corps Uniforms and Ranks
  3. "Finally, a New Surgeon General". The Atlantic. 15 December 2014. Retrieved 15 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. HHS – Office of the Surgeon General – About the Office
  5. Julie M. Fenster "Hazardous to Your Health" American Heritage, Oct. 2006.
  6. Joel Spitzer. The Surgeon General says ... Retrieved May 22, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Winn, Mari (October 9, 1988). "The Legacy of Dr. Koop". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Leon Dash, "Joycelyn Elders: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America", Washington Monthly, January–February 1997
  10. Gregory D. Curfman, M.D., Stephen Morrissey, Ph.D., and Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D. Where Is the Surgeon General? New England Journal of Medicine October 22, 2014DOI: 10.1056/NEJMe1412890
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Office of the Surgeon General, David Satcher, (1998–2002] url=". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. January 4, 2007. Missing pipe in: |title= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Jesse Leonard Steinfeld (1969-1973)". 2007-01-04. Retrieved 2014-04-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "HHS Secretaries - National Institutes of Health (NIH)". Retrieved 2014-04-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Obama picks Regina Benjamin as surgeon general". Reuters. July 13, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Stobbe, Mike (December 3, 2009). "Surgeon general: More minority doctors needed". WTOP. Retrieved December 5, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links