Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Surgeon General Is Neither a Surgeon nor a General

Matthew Holt asks in The Health Care Blog: "Anyway we may not have enough general surgeons according to their trade group, but why should the head of public health for the nation be a surgeon. Shouldn’t they be an epidemiologist? And why are they a general? Don’t we waste enough money on the military as it is?"

While Matt meant it in jest, these are actually pretty common questions. Actually, the term "Surgeon General" does not mean that the holder of the title must be a surgeon or that he/she is a general. The office was established in the 1870s, when the term "surgeon" was commonly used to refer to any physician. And "general" is not meant as a military reference, but as a title that means "supervising" - the same way it's used in "Attorney General," "Postmaster General," or "Inspector General."

That inevitably begs the question: if he/she is not a general, why does he/she wear a uniform? That is because the Surgeon General is a member of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, which is one of the federal government's seven uniformed services, along with the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Secret Service. The uniform closely resembles that of the Navy, because the Commissioned Corps was originally begun as a government network of hospitals for merchant seamen. The Corps reports to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

To top it off, there are no generals in the Navy ranking system, and the Surgeon General actually holds the rank of admiral in the Commissioned Corps.


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