Surgeon General

Surgeon General

Surgeon General, United States, former head of the U.S. Public Health Service, which is responsible for protecting the people's health (see public health). Since a 1986 reorganization, the surgeon general has largely served as a national spokesperson and watchdog on health issues. The separate U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force surgeons general oversee military health care.

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's office and staff are known as the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG).


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 the senior commissioned officer of the PHSCC, holding the grade of a three-star vice admiral while in office. 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. Rear Admiral Steven K. Galson is functioning as the Acting Surgeon General.

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 (albeit rational) 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 controversy which frequently surrounds Surgeons General for their politically explosive comments may explain why the position has fallen into disfavor in the George W. Bush administration, and remains untenanted since August 2006.

In 1798, Congress established the Marine Hospital Service—predecessor to today’s United States Public Health Service—to provide health care to sick and injured merchant seamen. In 1870, the Marine Hospital Service was reorganized as a national hospital system with centralized administration under a medical officer, the Supervising Surgeon, who was later given the title of Surgeon General.

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 . 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

# Name Term of Office Appointed by
Start End
1 John Maynard Woodworth March 29, 1871 March 14, 1879 Ulysses S. Grant
2 RADM John B. Hamilton April 3, 1879 June 1, 1891 Rutherford B. Hayes
3 RADM Walter Wyman June 1, 1891 November 21, 1911 Benjamin Harrison
4 RADM Rupert Blue January 13, 1912 March 3, 1920 William Taft
5 RADM Hugh S. Cumming March 3, 1920 January 31, 1936 Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge
6 RADM Thomas Parran, Jr. April 6, 1936 April 6, 1948 Franklin D. Roosevelt
7 RADM Leonard A. Scheele April 6, 1948 August 8, 1956 Harry S. Truman
8 RADM LeRoy Edgar Burney August 1, 1956 January 29, 1961 Dwight Eisenhower
9 RADM Luther Leonidas Terry March 2, 1961 October 1 1965 John F. Kennedy
10 VADM William H. Stewart October 1, 1965 August 1, 1969 Lyndon Johnson
11 RADM Jesse Leonard Steinfeld December 18, 1969 June 30, 1973 Richard Nixon
(Acting) RADM Paul Ehrlich, Jr. July 1, 1973 July 13, 1977
12 VADM Julius B. Richmond July 13, 1977 May 14, 1981 Jimmy Carter
(Acting) Edward Brandt, Jr. May 14, 1981 January 21, 1982 Ronald Reagan
13 VADM C. Everett Koop January 21, 1982 October 1, 1989
(Acting) ADM James O. Mason October 1, 1989 March 9, 1990 George H. W. Bush
14 VADM Antonia Coello Novello March 9, 1990 June 30, 1993
(Acting) RADM Robert A. Whitney July 1, 1993 September 8, 1993 Bill Clinton
15 VADM Joycelyn Elders September 8, 1993 December 31, 1994
(Acting) RADM Audrey F. Manley January 1, 1995 July 1, 1997
16 ADM / VADM David Satcher February 13, 1998 February 12, 2002
(Acting) RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu February 13, 2002 August 4, 2002 George W. Bush
17 VADM Richard Carmona August 5, 2002 July 31, 2006
(Acting) RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu August 1, 2006 September 30, 2007
(Acting) RADM Steven K. Galson October 1, 2007


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