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What does the surgeon general do?

Background on the origin and duties of the U.S. office of the surgeon general.

March 13, 2011

Why do we have a surgeon general, and what does she do?

According to John Parascandola, former historian of the U.S. Public Health Service, the office of the surgeon general has its origins in the Marine Hospital Service, a system funded by the federal government in 1798 to treat merchant seamen arriving in U.S. ports. In 1870, the federal government centralized the operation and tapped former Civil War surgeon Dr. John Maynard Woodworth to head the system as the supervising surgeon, a position that was later renamed surgeon general. It was Woodworth who organized the service along military lines and put its doctors in uniform.

In the decades that followed, the service organized quarantines and conducted medical inspections of arriving immigrants. By 1912 it had been renamed the Public Health Service, which was later expanded to include the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Until the 1960s, the surgeon general was the day-to-day manager of the Public Health Service. With a 1968 reorganization, that changed. Though the surgeon general still served as ceremonial head of the Public Health Service's commissioned corps, he or she "largely became a kind of spokesperson with a bully pulpit," Parascandola said.

Members of Congress periodically question the worth of having a surgeon general, though many in public health would like to see the office strengthened, Parascandola said.

— Eryn Brown

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