Featured Document Display: 150 Years of the Surgeon General

Thursday, January 14, 2021 - Wednesday, March 31, 2021
John Maynard Woodworth
Dr. John Maynard Woodworth, ca. 1870 (detail)
Brady-Handy photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


To many Americans, the Surgeon General of the United States is the “nation’s doctor.” It was a very different job, however, when Dr. John Maynard Woodworth was appointed the first Supervising Surgeon of the Marine Hospital Service in 1871. The previous year, Congress had established the service to replace the informal network of hospitals for sick and disabled seamen that was originally enacted in 1789.

Though he served under a different title, Dr. Woodworth is recognized as the nation’s first Surgeon General. Over 150 years, the position has changed in more than name only. Originally dedicated to overseeing military health matters, the role of Surgeon General gradually expanded to national public health issues. The Marine Hospital Service likewise evolved into the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS).

Today, the Surgeon General oversees the USPHS Commissioned Corps, serves as a principal adviser to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and is a leading spokesperson for the U.S. Government on public health.


Antonia Novella nomination
Another History-Making Surgeon General
On January 23, 1990, President George W. Bush nominated Puerto Rican physician Dr. Antonia Novello to be Surgeon General of the United States. Dr. Novello was the first woman and first Hispanic person to hold the office.

As Surgeon General, Dr. Novello focused on the health of women, children, and minorities. She was a vocal advocate for combating underage substance abuse and ran an influential campaign against tobacco companies that targeted children in advertising. Dr. Novello also worked to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic and promoted childhood immunizations and improvements to health care for minorities.
National Archives, Records of the U.S. Senate


Banner Image:  Photograph of the swearing-in ceremony for the first female Surgeon General, Antonia Novello, March 9, 1990. George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum