Definition of Surgeon General

Reviewed on 3/29/2021

Surgeon General: In the United States, the chief medical officer of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPS), the agency responsible for the public health of the American people. The Public Health Service (PHS) administers a number of critically important health agencies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Founding of the Health Service: In 1798, Congress established the U. S. Marine Hospital Service -- the predecessor of today's U.S. 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 First Surgeon General: Dr. John Woodworth was appointed as the first Supervising Surgeon in 1871. Woodward established a cadre of medical personnel to administer the Marine Hospital System. On January 4, 1889, the Congress recognized this new personnel system by formally authorizing the Commissioned Corps. The Corps was established along military lines to be a mobile force of professionals subject to reassignment to meet the needs of the Service. Originally, the Corps was composed only of physicians. However, over the years, as the functional responsibilities of the PHS and the Corps have broadened, a broad range of health professionals has been included in the PHS.

Before 1968, the Surgeon General was the head of the PHS, and all program, administrative, and financial management authorities flowed through the Surgeon General, who reported directly to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

Surgeon General Abolished: In 1968, the Secretary of HEW delegated line responsibility for the PHS to the Assistant Secretary for Health. The Office of the Surgeon General was abolished and the position of Surgeon General became that of a principal deputy to the Assistant Secretary for Health with responsibility for advising and assisting on professional medical matters. In addition, a primary role developed in which the Surgeon General became the PHS spokesperson on certain health issues.

Surgeon General Reestablished: In 1987, the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) was reestablished as a staff office within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. Concomitant with this action, the Surgeon General again became responsible for management of the Commissioned Corps personnel system. In carrying out all responsibilities, the Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health, who is the principal advisor to the Secretary on public health and scientific issues.

Current Status: Under the Surgeon General there currently are more than 6,100 officers on active duty. Officers are assigned to all of the PHS Agencies and to a number of agencies outside of PHS, including the Bureau of Prisons, U. S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, Health Care Financing Administration, and the Commission on Mental Health of the District of Columbia.


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