Leroy Edgar Burney (1906-1998) was the Surgeon General of the United States from 1956 to 1961.
From Charlottesville, Burney applied for and was accepted into the PHS Regular Corps as an Assistant Surgeon (1932). His area of expertise would be public health administration at the state and local level, the front lines of public health. Like many of his generation at PHS, Burney came up through the ranks of then-Surgeon General Thomas Parran, Jr.’s venereal disease control programs, receiving specialized training at the New York Marine Hospital (1934) and assisting in the management of rapid treatment centers around the country. Burney helped establish the first PHS mobile venereal disease clinic, in Brunswick, Georgia (1937-39), bringing access to treatment for African Americans, whom Jim Crow segregation excluded from the predominantly white locations of other facilities.
Burney spent most of World War II stateside, where he served as Assistant Chief of PHS’s Division of State Relations (1943-44), except for a five-month detail to the Navy, where he traveled to the Mediterranean on behalf of the War Shipping Administration, to address infectious disease problems affecting ports. After the war, Burney continued his work with state and county health departments, directing PHS’s New Orleans district office (1945) and then accepting a detail to be State Health Commissioner and Secretary of Indiana's new State Board of Health (1945-54) and teach at the Indiana University School of Medicine. In 1954 Burney returned to PHS as an Assistant Surgeon General and Deputy Chief of the Bureau of State Services, overseeing grants-in-aid to the states while being prepared for leadership by then-Surgeon General Leonard A. Scheele.
In response, Burney mustered his leadership to gather facts, draft plans for modernizing PHS and take action. Under future Surgeon General William H. Stewart, the Office of the Surgeon General’s Division of Public Health Methods staffed a number of investigatory and advisory bodies whose reports still inform policy decisionmaking, including the Secretary’s Consultants on Medical Research and Education (Bayne-Jones report, 1958); the Surgeon General’s Consultant Group on Medical Education (Bane report, 1959); the Surgeon General’s Report on Environmental Health Problems submitted to the House Appropriations Subcommittee (1959); and the Study Group on the Mission and Organization of the Public Health Service (Hundley report, 1960). In addition, during July 1957 Public Health Methods began implementing the National Health Survey Act of 1956, conducting the first periodic national surveys of chronic disease morbidity and health services: the triennial Health Interview Survey, and the mobile Health Examination Survey (which in 1971 became the Health and Nutrition Examination Survey).
The Hundley Committee report urged that PHS shed the institutional remnants of its early missions (the hospitals and quarantine) and reorganize to better fulfill its post-1940 mandate to promote civilian public health. Unable to obtain formal authority from Congress but with permission from the Secretary of DHEW, Burney began reorienting PHS structure to reflect its new functions. The Bureau of State Services was divided into two parts, one devoted to issues related to services delivery, under the rubric of "community health," and the other devoted to environmental health. Environmental programs were consolidated and upgraded, with new Division-level units created for radiological health (1957) and air pollution (1960) and a new National Advisory Committee on Radiation. With the exception of the multidisciplinary National Institute of Mental Health, institutional boundaries were redrawn to distinguish services-oriented programs at the Bureau of Medical Services from research at the National Institutes of Health and from information gathering units such as the National Library of Medicine (groundbreaking for Bethesda facility in June, 1959) and the National Center for Health Statistics (established in August, 1960, comprising Public Health Method’s surveys group and PHS’s National Vital Statistics Division).
Surgeon General Burney also refashioned his position to emphasize his role as a spokesperson on behalf of public health. In 1957 and again in 1959, he was the first Federal official to publicly identify cigarette smoke as a cause of lung cancer, issuing statements that paved the way for his successor, Surgeon General Luther L. Terry. Traditional public health functions remained no less important. During his tenure Burney played a leadership role in public health affairs both internationally (chairing the U.S. delegation to the 1959 World Health Assembly) and domestically (serving as President of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers). In addition, he supported an effective response by the Communicable Disease Center to the 1957 Asian influenza pandemic and gave ongoing, measured support to the development of the oral polio vaccine developed by Albert Sabin.