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

Selection and current office-holder

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 highest ranking uniformed officer of the PHSCC, holding the grade of a three-star vice admiral while in office. However, the Surgeon General reports to the United States Assistant Secretary for Health, who himself may hold the rank of a four-star admiral within the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

The current Surgeon General is Regina Benjamin, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 29, 2009 and sworn in on November 2, 2009.

Responsibilities

US Public Health Service
The Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health (ASH), who is the principal advisor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services on public health and scientific issues. The Surgeon General is the overall head of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC), a 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.

History

US Public Health Service Collar Device
US Public Health Service Cap Device
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 Treasurymarker or the Federal Security Agency, the agency operated with a substantial amount of independence.

Some Surgeons General have been noted for being outspoken and advocating controversial proposals on how to reform the U.S. health system. The office is not a particularly powerful one, and has little direct impact on policy-making, but Surgeons General are often vocal advocates of unconventional or unpopular health policies.

  • In 1986, Vice Admiral 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.


  • In 1994, Vice Admiral Joycelyn Elders spoke 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."


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 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 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 Staff Corps Officers (e.g., Navy Medical Service Corps, Supply Corps, etc).

The only Surgeon General to hold the rank of four-star admiral was David Satcher. 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).

Surgeons General of the United States

# Name Photo Term of Office Appointed by
Start Of Term End Of Term
1 John M. Woodworth 29 March 1871 14 March 1879 Ulysses S. Grant
2 RADM John B. Hamilton 3 April 1879 1 June 1891 Rutherford B. Hayes
3 RADM Walter Wyman 1 June 1891 21 November 1911 Benjamin Harrison
4 RADM Rupert Blue 13 January 1912 3 March 1920 William Taft
5 RADM Hugh S. Cumming 3 March 1920 31 January 1936 Woodrow Wilson
6 RADM Thomas Parran, Jr. 6 April 1936 6 April 1948 Franklin D. Roosevelt
7 RADM Leonard A. Scheele 6 April 1948 8 August 1956 Harry S. Truman
8 RADM LeRoy Edgar Burney 1 August 1956 29 January 1961 Dwight Eisenhower
9 RADM Luther Leonidas Terry 2 March 1961 1 October 1965 John F. Kennedy
10 VADM William H. Stewart 1 October 1965 1 August 1969 Lyndon Johnson
11 RADM Jesse Leonard Steinfeld 18 December 1969 30 June 1973 Richard Nixon
RADM Paul Ehrlich, Jr. 1 July 1973 13 July 1977
12 VADM Julius B. Richmond 13 July 1977 14 May 1981 Jimmy Carter
Edward Brandt, Jr. 14 May 1981 21 January 1982 Ronald Reagan
13 VADM C. Everett Koop 21 January 1982 1 October 1989
ADM James O. Mason 1 October 1989 9 March 1990 George H. W. Bush
14 VADM Antonia C. Novello 9 March 1990 30 June 1993
RADM Robert A. Whitney 1 July 1993 8 September 1993 Bill Clinton
15 VADM Joycelyn Elders 8 September 1993 31 December 1994
RADM Audrey F. Manley 1 January 1995 1 July 1997
16 ADM / VADM David Satcher 13 February 1998 12 February 2002
RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu 13 February 2002 4 August 2002 George W. Bush
17 VADM Richard Carmona 5 August 2002 31 July 2006
RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu 1 August 2006 30 September 2007
RADM Steven K. Galson 1 October 2007 1 October 2009
RADM Donald L. Weaver 1 October 2009 2 November 2009 Barack Obama
18 VADM Regina Benjamin 2 November 2009 Incumbent


References

  1. Public Health, Commissioned Corps Uniforms and Ranks.
  2. HHS - Office of the Surgeon General - About the Office
  3. Leon Dash, "Joycelyn Elders: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America", Washington Monthly, January-February 1997
  4. Obama picks Regina Benjamin as surgeon general


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