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) which is housed within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.[1]

Surgeon General of the
United States
Seal of the United States Public Health Service, 1798
Flag of the United States Surgeon General
Vice Admiral Jerome Adams

since September 5, 2017
Public Health Service
Public Health Service, Commissioned Corps
Reports toAssistant Secretary for Health
SeatHubert H. Humphrey Building, United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Washington, D.C.
AppointerThe President
with United States Senate advice and consent
Term length4 years
FormationMarch 29, 1871
First holderJohn M. Woodworth (as Supervising Surgeon)

The U.S. surgeon general is nominated by the president of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. The surgeon general must be appointed from individuals who (1) are members of the Regular Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, and (2) have specialized training or significant experience in public health programs.[2] The surgeon general serves a four-year term of office and, depending on whether the current assistant secretary for health is a Public Health Service commissioned officer, is either the senior or next most senior uniformed officer of the commissioned corps, holding the rank of a vice admiral.[3][4] The current surgeon general is Jerome Adams, having taken office on September 5, 2017.[5]


The surgeon general reports to the assistant secretary for health (ASH), who may be a four-star admiral in the commissioned corps, 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 uniformed 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 label that has been present on all packages of American tobacco cigarettes since 1966.[6] A similar health warning has appeared on alcoholic beverages labels since 1988.[7]


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).[8]

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. The office is not a particularly powerful one, and has little direct statutory impact on policy-making, but Surgeons General are often vocal advocates of precedent-setting, far-sighted, unconventional, or even unpopular health policies.

  • On January 11, 1964, Rear Admiral Luther Terry, M.D., published a landmark report saying that smoking may be hazardous to health,[9] 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 report went uncorrected for 24 years.[10]
  • 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.[11] 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 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. She replied, "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught."[12] Elders also spoke 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."[13] She was fired by President Bill Clinton in December 1994.

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 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.[3] 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).[14] 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.

Previous surgeons general of the United States

# Name
Photo Term of office Appointed by
Start of term End of term
1 John M. 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 Howard Taft

5 RADM Hugh S. Cumming
March 3, 1920 January 31, 1936 Woodrow Wilson

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 8, 1956 January 29, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower

9 Luther Terry
March 2, 1961 October 1, 1965 John F. Kennedy

10 William H. Stewart
October 1, 1965 August 1, 1969 Lyndon B. Johnson

N/A RADM Richard A. Prindle
(c. 1926–2001)
Acting Surgeon General
August 1, 1969 December 18, 1969[15][16] Richard Nixon

11 Jesse Leonard Steinfeld
December 18, 1969[17] January 30, 1973[18]
N/A RADM S. Paul Ehrlich Jr.
Acting Surgeon General
January 31, 1973[19] July 13, 1977
12 VADM Julius B. Richmond
July 13, 1977 January 20, 1981[20] Jimmy Carter

N/A RADM John C. Greene
Acting Surgeon General
January 21, 1981 May 14, 1981 Ronald Reagan

N/A Edward Brandt Jr.
Acting Surgeon General
May 14, 1981 January 21, 1982
13 VADM C. Everett Koop
January 21, 1982 October 1, 1989
N/A ADM James O. Mason
Acting Surgeon General
October 1, 1989 March 9, 1990 George H. W. Bush

14 VADM Antonia C. Novello
March 9, 1990 June 30, 1993
N/A RADM Robert A. Whitney
Acting Surgeon General
July 1, 1993 September 8, 1993 Bill Clinton

15 VADM Joycelyn Elders
September 8, 1993 December 31, 1994
N/A RADM Audrey F. Manley
Acting Surgeon General
January 1, 1995 July 1, 1997
16 ADM[14] / VADM David Satcher
February 13, 1998 February 12, 2002
N/A RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu
Acting Surgeon General
February 13, 2002 August 4, 2002 George W. Bush

17 VADM Richard Carmona
August 5, 2002 July 31, 2006
N/A RADM Kenneth P. Moritsugu
Acting Surgeon General
August 1, 2006 September 30, 2007
RADM Steven K. Galson
Acting Surgeon General
October 1, 2007 October 1, 2009
RADM Donald L. Weaver
Acting Surgeon General
October 1, 2009 November 3, 2009 Barack Obama

18 VADM Regina Benjamin[21]
November 3, 2009[22] July 16, 2013
N/A RADM Boris Lushniak
Acting Surgeon General
July 17, 2013 December 18, 2014
19 VADM Vivek Murthy
December 18, 2014 April 21, 2017
N/A RADM Sylvia Trent-Adams
Acting Surgeon General
April 21, 2017 September 5, 2017 Donald Trump

20 VADM Jerome Adams
September 5, 2017 Incumbent

See also


  1. (ASPA), Digital Communications Division (DCD), Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (2008-10-24). "OASH Organization Chart". Retrieved 2018-11-19.
  2. 42 USC 205. Appointment and tenure of office of Surgeon General; reversion in rank.
  3. 42 USC 207. Grades, ranks, and titles of commissioned corps.
  4. "Public Health, Commissioned Corps Uniforms and Ranks". Archived from the original on 2008-05-13.
  5. "Dr. Jerome Adams sworn in as U.S. Surgeon General". 5 September 2017.
  6. "Public Health Information | R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company". R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Retrieved 2017-08-16.
  7. "Legislation". Retrieved 2017-08-16.
  8. (OSG), Office of the Surgeon General. "About the Office of the Surgeon General".
  9. Julie M. Fenster Archived 2008-08-28 at the Wayback Machine "Hazardous to Your Health" American Heritage, Oct. 2006.
  10. Joel Spitzer. The Surgeon General says... Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  11. Winn, Mari (October 9, 1988). "The Legacy of Dr. Koop". The New York Times.
  12. Leon Dash, "Joycelyn Elders: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America", Washington Monthly, January–February 1997
  13. Dreifus;, Claudia (9 March 1994). "Joycelyn Elders" via maint: extra punctuation (link)
  14. "David Satcher (1998–2002)". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. January 4, 2007. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  15. "House Panel Bids U.S. Study Marijuana's Use and Effects". New York Times. Associated Press. September 7, 1969. p. 62. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  16. Zielinski, Graeme (September 15, 2001). "Public Health Researcher Richard Prindle Dies". Washington Post. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  17. "Washington: For the Record – December 18, 1969". New York Times. December 19, 1969. p. 7. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  18. "Jesse Leonard Steinfeld (1969–1973)". 2007-01-04. Retrieved 2014-04-29.
  19. Office, U.S. Government Accountability (27 August 1974). ": Need for More Effective Management of Community Mental Health Centers Program" (B-164031(5)). Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  20. "HHS Secretaries – National Institutes of Health (NIH)". Archived from the original on 2008-09-24. Retrieved 2014-04-29.
  21. "Obama picks Regina Benjamin as surgeon general". Reuters. July 13, 2009.
  22. Stobbe, Mike (December 3, 2009). "Surgeon general: More minority doctors needed". WTOP. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
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