Surgeon General of the United States

Surgeon General of the
United States

Seal of the United States Public Health Service, 1798

Flag of the United States Surgeon General
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
First holder John M. Woodworth (as Supervising Surgeon)
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 the Senate. The Surgeon General serves a four-year term of office and, depending on whether or not the current Assistant Secretary for Health is a PHSCC commissioned officer, is either the senior or next most senior uniformed officer of the PHSCC, holding the rank of a vice admiral.[1][2] The current Surgeon General is 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 label that has been present on all packages of American tobacco cigarettes since 1966. A similar health warning has appeared 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. 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.

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

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

11 RADM Jesse Leonard Steinfeld
December 18, 1969 January 30, 1973[12] Richard Nixon

N/A RADM S. Paul Ehrlich, Jr.
Acting Surgeon General
January 31, 1973[13] July 13, 1977
12 VADM Julius B. Richmond
July 13, 1977 January 20, 1981[14] Jimmy Carter

N/A Edward Brandt, Jr.
Acting Surgeon General
May 14, 1981 January 21, 1982 Ronald Reagan

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[11] / 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[15]
November 3, 2009[16] July 16, 2013
N/A RADM Boris D. Lushniak
Acting Surgeon General
July 17, 2013 December 18, 2014
19 VADM Vivek Murthy
December 18, 2014 Incumbent

See also


  1. 42 USC 207. Grades, ranks, and titles of commissioned corps.
  2. 1 2 Public Health, Commissioned Corps Uniforms and Ranks
  3. "Finally, a New Surgeon General". The Atlantic. 15 December 2014. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  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.
  7. Winn, Mari (October 9, 1988). "The Legacy of Dr. Koop". The New York Times.
  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. (October 22, 2014). "Where Is the Surgeon General?" New England Journal of Medicine. doi:10.1056/NEJMe1412890
  11. 1 2 "David Satcher (1998–2002)". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. January 4, 2007. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  12. "Jesse Leonard Steinfeld (1969-1973)". 2007-01-04. Retrieved 2014-04-29.
  14. "HHS Secretaries - National Institutes of Health (NIH)". Retrieved 2014-04-29.
  15. "Obama picks Regina Benjamin as surgeon general". Reuters. July 13, 2009.
  16. Stobbe, Mike (December 3, 2009). "Surgeon general: More minority doctors needed". WTOP. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
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