As the United States continues its season of transition to a new administration, many citizens will notice changes in our leadership, with nominees for our nation’s foremost leadership positions – such as Attorney General or Supreme Court Justices and so on – coming forth and introducing themselves to the public.
With that in mind, let us take a look at the history of one of our government’s most vital appointed roles: the Surgeon General.
It all began in 1798, when Congress established the United States Marine Hospital Service, which was the predecessor of what we now know as the United States Public Health Service. Their charge was to provide health care to sick and injured seamen. However, in 1870, the Service broadened its scope and reorganized itself as a national hospital system with centralized administration under a chief medical officer, who is now known as the Surgeon General.
Our nation’s first Surgeon General was Dr. John Woodworth, who was appointed to the role in 1871. Approximately 18 years later, under the leadership of then-Surgeon General Walter Wyman, the Congress recognized this personnel system by officially authorizing the Commissioned Corps, which was established to be a mobile force of healthcare professionals subject to reassignment in order to aid the service.
However, in 1968, former President Lyndon B. Johnson abolished the Office of the United States Surgeon General in favor of shifting all responsibilities to the Assistant Secretary for Health, a position that still exists today as the highest office in the Department of Health and Human Services. This relieved the Surgeon General of many of their duties, turning their position into more of a spokesperson and advisor role for the Public Health Service.
This change remained intact until 1987, when the Office of the United States Surgeon General was officially reestablished as a subsidiary office to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. With this restoration, the Surgeon General upheld their previous responsibilities, as well as the task of revitalizing the Commissioned Corps.
Today, there are nearly 7,000 Commissioned Officers on active duty in the Public Health Service, working for over 37 different government agencies. Officers in 11 different health professional Categories stationed around the country and the world are responsible for aiding the Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Prisons, United States Coast Guard, Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, National Parks Service, National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Commission on Mental Health of the District of Columbia.
If you wish to learn more about the individuals who are currently holding these positions within our government, please visit the Office of the Surgeon General website!