Since 1871, the Surgeon General of the United States has been the nation's leading spokesman on matters of public health. In that year, Dr. John Woodworth was appointed as the first supervising surgeon (later renamed surgeon general). Woodsworth established a cadre of medical personnel, called the Commissioned Corps, to administer the Marine Hospital System. This corps was established along military lines to be a mobile force of professionals subject to reassignment to meet the needs of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS).
Prior to 1968, the surgeon general was the head of the PHS, and all program, administrative, and financial management authorities were supervised by the surgeon general, who reported directly to the secretary of health, education, and welfare. In 1968, pursuant to a reorganization plan issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the secretary delegated responsibility for the PHS to the assistant secretary for health. 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.
In 1987, the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) was established as a staff office within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the department of United States Health and Human Services (USDHHS). Concomitant with this action, the surgeon general again became responsible for management of the personnel system for the Commissioned Corps, which is now a nearly 6,000-person cadre of public health professionals who are on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for deployment in case of national health emergencies. (The surgeon general does not directly supervise all commissioned officers; most of whom work in the PHS or other federal agencies and report to agency line managers who may or may not be in the corps.) In carrying out these 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.
Today, the surgeon general's duties also include the following:
- Providing leadership and management oversight for PHS Commissioned Corps involvement in departmental emergency preparedness and response activities.
- Protecting and advancing the health of the nation through educating the public; advocating for effective disease-prevention and health-promotion programs and activities; and providing a highly recognized symbol of national commitment to protecting and improving the public's health.
- Articulating scientifically based health-policy analysis and advice to the president and the secretary of health and human services on the full range of critical public health and health-system issues facing the nation.
- Providing leadership in promoting special departmental health initiatives, including tobacco and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) prevention efforts, both domestically and internationally.
- Elevating the quality of public health practice in the professional disciplines through the advancement of appropriate standards and research priorities.
- Fulfilling statutory and customary departmental representational functions on a wide variety of federal boards and governing bodies of nonfederal health organizations, including the Board of Regents of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the National Library of Medicine, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, and the American Medical Association.