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Surgeon General of the United States

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Surgeon General of the
United States
Seal of the United States Public Health Service
Flag of the United States Surgeon General
Vice Admiral
Vivek Murthy
since March 25, 2021
U.S. Public Health Service
Commissioned Corps
StyleSurgeon General
Vice Admiral
Reports toUnited States Assistant Secretary for Health
SeatHubert H. Humphrey Building, United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Washington, D.C.
AppointerPresident of the United States
with United States Senate advice and consent
Term length4 years
Constituting instrument42 U.S.C. § 205 and
42 U.S.C. § 207
FormationMarch 29, 1871
First holderJohn M. Woodworth (as supervising surgeon)
DeputyDeputy Surgeon General

The surgeon general of the United States is the operational head of the United States 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]

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 are members of the regular corps of the U.S. Public Health Service and have specialized training or significant experience in public health programs.[2] However, there is no time requirement for membership in the Public Health Service before holding the office of the Surgeon General, and nominees traditionally were appointed as members of the Public Health Service and as surgeon general at the same time. The surgeon general serves a four-year term of office and, depending on whether the current assistant secretary for health is a commissioned corps officer, is either the senior or next-most senior uniformed officer of the commissioned corps, holding the rank of vice admiral.[3][4] The current surgeon general is Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy.


The surgeon general reports to the assistant secretary for health (ASH). The ASH may be a four-star admiral in the commissioned corps, and serves as 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 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 by 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.[5] A similar health warning has appeared on alcoholic beverages labels since 1988.[6]


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—the 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.

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).

Prior to 1970, the surgeon general was traditionally selected from career uniformed officers.[7] Today, the surgeon general is usually selected from the civilian community, who aligns more closely with the president's political party.[7] 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, Luther Terry published a landmark report saying that smoking may be hazardous to health,[8] 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.[9]
  • In 1986, 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.[10] 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, 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."[11] 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."[12] 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, of their respective services, while the surgeon general of the United States is surgeon general of the entire country as a whole.

The insignia of the surgeon general, and the USPHS, use the caduceus as opposed to the Rod of Asclepius.

Service rank[edit]

The surgeon general is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one of the eight 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. Officers of the commissioned corps, including the surgeon general, wear uniforms that are modeled after uniforms of the United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard, 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).[13] John Maynard Woodworth (1837–1879, served 1871–1879), was the first holder of the office as "supervising surgeon."

List of surgeons general of the United States[edit]

No. Portrait Name
Term of office Appointed by
Took office Left office Time in office
1 John M. Woodworth
March 29, 1871 March 14, 1879 7 years, 350 days Ulysses S. Grant
2 Commodore
John B. Hamilton
April 3, 1879 June 1, 1891 12 years, 59 days Rutherford B. Hayes
3 Commodore
Walter Wyman
June 1, 1891 November 21, 1911 20 years, 173 days Benjamin Harrison
4 Commodore
Rupert Blue
January 13, 1912 March 3, 1920 8 years, 50 days William Howard Taft
5 Rear Admiral
Hugh S. Cumming
March 3, 1920 January 31, 1936 15 years, 334 days Woodrow Wilson
6 Rear Admiral
Thomas Parran Jr.
April 6, 1936 April 6, 1948 12 years, 0 days Franklin D. Roosevelt
7 Rear Admiral
Leonard A. Scheele
April 6, 1948 August 8, 1956 8 years, 124 days Harry S. Truman
8 Rear Admiral
Leroy E. Burney
August 8, 1956 January 29, 1961 4 years, 174 days Dwight D. Eisenhower
9 Luther Terry
March 2, 1961 October 1, 1965 4 years, 213 days John F. Kennedy
10 William H. Stewart
October 1, 1965 August 1, 1969 3 years, 304 days Lyndon B. Johnson
Rear Admiral
Richard A. Prindle
(c. 1926–2001)
August 1, 1969 December 18, 1969 139 days Richard Nixon
11 Jesse L. Steinfeld
December 18, 1969 January 30, 1973 3 years, 43 days [16][17]
Rear Admiral
S. Paul Ehrlich Jr.
January 31, 1973 July 13, 1977 4 years, 163 days [18]
12 Vice Admiral
Julius B. Richmond
July 13, 1977 January 20, 1981 3 years, 191 days Jimmy Carter
Rear Admiral
John C. Greene
January 21, 1981 May 14, 1981 113 days Ronald Reagan
Edward Brandt Jr.
May 14, 1981 January 21, 1982 252 days
13 Vice Admiral
C. Everett Koop
January 21, 1982 October 1, 1989 7 years, 253 days
James O. Mason
October 1, 1989 March 9, 1990 159 days George H. W. Bush
14 Vice Admiral
Antonia Novello
(born 1944)
March 9, 1990 June 30, 1993 3 years, 113 days
Rear Admiral
Robert A. Whitney
(born 1935)
July 1, 1993 September 8, 1993 69 days Bill Clinton
15 Vice Admiral
Joycelyn Elders
(born 1933)
September 8, 1993 December 31, 1994 1 year, 114 days
Rear Admiral
Audrey F. Manley
(born 1934)
January 1, 1995 July 1, 1997 2 years, 180 days
Rear Admiral
J. Jarrett Clinton
July 2, 1997 February 12, 1998 226 days
16 Admiral[a]
David Satcher
(born 1941)
February 13, 1998 February 12, 2002 3 years, 364 days [13]
Rear Admiral
Kenneth P. Moritsugu
(born 1945)
February 13, 2002 August 4, 2002 172 days George W. Bush
17 Vice Admiral
Richard Carmona
(born 1949)
August 5, 2002 July 31, 2006 3 years, 360 days
Rear Admiral
Kenneth P. Moritsugu
(born 1945)
August 1, 2006 September 30, 2007 1 year, 60 days
Rear Admiral
Steven K. Galson
(born 1956)
October 1, 2007 October 1, 2009 2 years, 0 days
Rear Admiral
Donald L. Weaver
October 1, 2009 November 3, 2009 33 days Barack Obama
18 Vice Admiral
Regina Benjamin
(born 1956)
November 3, 2009 July 16, 2013 3 years, 255 days [20][21]
Rear Admiral
Boris Lushniak
July 17, 2013 December 18, 2014 1 year, 154 days
19 Vice Admiral
Vivek Murthy
(born 1977)
December 18, 2014 April 21, 2017 2 years, 124 days
Rear Admiral
Sylvia Trent-Adams
(born 1965)
April 21, 2017 September 5, 2017 137 days Donald Trump
20 Vice Admiral
Jerome Adams
(born 1974)
September 5, 2017 January 20, 2021 3 years, 137 days
Rear Admiral
Susan Orsega
January 20, 2021 March 24, 2021 62 days Joe Biden
21 Vice Admiral
Vivek Murthy
(born 1977)
March 25, 2021 Present 3 years, 81 days

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Reverted to the rank of vice admiral in 2001, for the remainder of his term as surgeon general, when he no longer held the office of Assistant Secretary for Health.


  1. ^ (ASPA), Digital Communications Division (DCD), Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (2008-10-24). "OASH Organization Chart". HHS.gov. Retrieved 2018-11-19.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ 42 U.S.C. § 205 - Appointment and tenure of office of Surgeon General; reversion in rank.
  3. ^ a b 42 U.S.C. § 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. ^ "Public Health Information | R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company". R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Archived from the original on 2017-08-16. Retrieved 2017-08-16.
  6. ^ "Legislation". depts.washington.edu. Retrieved 2017-08-16.
  7. ^ a b Carmona, Richard (2014-11-09). "Take politics out of selecting surgeon general: Column". USA Today. Archived from the original on 2021-11-25. Retrieved 2021-11-25.
  8. ^ Julie M. Fenster Archived 2008-08-28 at the Wayback Machine "Hazardous to Your Health" American Heritage, Oct. 2006.
  9. ^ Joel Spitzer. The Surgeon General says... WhyQuit.com. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  10. ^ Winn, Mari (October 9, 1988). "The Legacy of Dr. Koop". The New York Times.
  11. ^ Leon Dash, "Joycelyn Elders: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America", Washington Monthly, January–February 1997
  12. ^ Dreifus, Claudia (9 March 1994). "Joycelyn Elders". The New York Times.
  13. ^ a b "David Satcher (1998–2002)". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. January 4, 2007. Archived from the original on January 6, 2009. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  14. ^ "House Panel Bids U.S. Study Marijuana's Use and Effects". The New York Times. Associated Press. September 7, 1969. p. 62. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  15. ^ Zielinski, Graeme (September 15, 2001). "Public Health Researcher Richard Prindle Dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  16. ^ "Washington: For the Record – December 18, 1969". The New York Times. December 19, 1969. p. 7. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  17. ^ "Jesse Leonard Steinfeld (1969–1973)". SurgeonGeneral.gov. 2007-01-04. Archived from the original on 2017-12-01. Retrieved 2014-04-29.
  18. ^ U.S. Government Accountability Office (27 August 1974). Need for More Effective Management of Community Mental Health Centers Program: National Institute of Mental Health; Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (PDF) (Report). Archived from the original on 6 October 2022.
  19. ^ "HHS Secretaries". National Institutes of Health. Archived from the original on 2008-09-24. Retrieved 2014-04-29.
  20. ^ "Obama picks Regina Benjamin as surgeon general". Reuters. July 13, 2009.
  21. ^ Stobbe, Mike (December 3, 2009). "Surgeon general: More minority doctors needed". WTOP. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  22. ^ Collier, Andrea King (2017-05-04). "5 things to know about acting Surgeon General, Sylvia Trent-Adams". NBC News. Retrieved 2021-01-26.
  23. ^ Diamond, Dan (2021-01-25). "Biden to tap nurse as acting surgeon general". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2021-01-26.

External links[edit]