Stuff You Probably Didn’t Want To Know About The US Surgeon General

Stuff You Probably Didn’t Want To Know About The US Surgeon General

Created in 1871, the post of Surgeon General of the United States was the top position in the Marine Hospital Service. The SG’s job was to stop the spread of diseases carried to US shores by merchant marines.

John Maynard Woodworth, the first to hold the post, developed a mobile group of doctors called the Commissioned Corps. Until 1971, the Surgeon General served in the Commissioned Corps. Since then the SG’s only commitment has been to agree with everything the US president says.

The Commissioned Corps remains today as one of only seven services of the United States government that completes its work in uniform (not including postal carriers).

During the First World War, SG Rupert Blue included cigarettes as part of the basic field rations kit issued to men fighting in the US military.

It wasn’t until 1964 that Surgeon General Luther Terry published a report accusing tobacco smoke as one of the prime causes of cancer. This triggered both the Cigarette Labelling and Advertising Act and an enormous campaign by Big Tobacco to deny, bribe, obfuscate studies and intimidate politicians in the position of passing legislation that would limit the profits of tobacco companies.

President George H.W. Bush’s Surgeon General, Antonia Novello, continued the assault on Big Tobacco. Her brother-in-law, Don Novello, played the role of chain-smoking priest Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live and at other comedy venues.

Back in 1930, then Surgeon General Hugh Cumming initiated the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Its purpose was to study the effects of untreated syphilis in African American men. Again, that’s cases of syphilis among African American men who received absolutely no treatment. The program continued under the next six Surgeons General.

The Tuskegee study was stopped only in 1973 was it was declared unethical, the judgment being that it’s not healthy to leave syphilis untreated, no matter what skin colour a victim has. Fortunately, as syphilis (the treponema pallidum spirochete) can be transmitted through placenta, the study was not carried out with African American women.

In 1981, President Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, gained notoriety by writing candidly about the risks of AIDS. In a brochure he had mailed to every house in the United States, he wrote about sexuality and the dangers of unprotected sex.

Though he withstood the uproar his little publication aroused for bringing the subject of sex to public notice, the first black Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, didn’t fare so well. She wanted sex education to be taught in schools so that kids would grow up knowing how to protect themselves from AIDS when they became sexually active. She was fired after only 15 months, the shortest term of any SG.

At a United Nations conference on AIDS, Elders was asked about masturbation as an alternative to sexual intercourse. She supported the idea. Alas, the morality police (once they recovered from swallowing their tongues in shock that anyone would even say the word masturbation out loud) went to work and made short work of her career. No audio or video tapes of that question and reply exist today, so her exact words remain unknown except to a few who were there in person.

Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, under President George W. Bush, was asked to censor his reports on embryonic stem cell research, contraception and his opinions about abstinence-only as a method of contraception studied in sex education classes. Bush also asked Carmona to sprinkle Bush’s name at least three times on each page of every speech he gave.

Draconian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, subsequently executed, was also known to insist that scientists include the name of their revered president in their speeches and writings.

SG Carmona was at one time a high school dropout. However, he received the Gold-Headed Cane award for his outstanding service with the Vietnam Special Forces. He also served as a paramedic and nurse. He went on to be a top graduate at the University of California Medical school.

President Dubya’s nomination for Surgeon General of James W. Holsinger received great resistance because of Holsinger’s reputation as anti-gay. In writing for the United Methodist Church, in 1991, he claimed that homosexuality is unnatural and unhealthy. Subsequently, studies have shown that homosexuals have a few notable physiological differences from heterosexuals, not the least being a considerable difference in the size of one part of their brain. No one knows why that is, yet.

Acting Surgeon General Robert A. Whitney, who served as SG between Novello and Elders, was a veterinarian. Despite jokes to the contrary, the US health infrastructure did not go to the dogs on Whitney’s watch.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how, when and what to teach children so they know enough to live healthy lives as adults.
Learn more at

Primary resource: Discover, October 2007


One thought on “Stuff You Probably Didn’t Want To Know About The US Surgeon General

  1. Dr. James Holsinger and $20 million of Church Money
    by Rev. Andrew J. Weaver, Ph.D., and Lawrence H. McGaughey, Esq.

    Dr. James Holsinger is President Bush’s choice for Surgeon General. He has been a major player in a contentious and controversial seven year lawsuit involving his own church. Before Holsinger is confirmed by the Senate he needs to address serious ethical issues regarding his conduct in the law suit..
    The litigation involved the sale in 1995 of a United Methodist Church (UMC) hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, and the disposition of the $20 million in proceeds. The hospital’s trustees refused to hand over the assets to the owner, the UMC in Kentucky. Instead, the self-appointed trustees, calling themselves the Good Samaritan Foundation (GSF) placed the funds under their sole control and withheld the money from the church for five years. The church was forced to engage in a long and costly lawsuit to find out where the money was and to regain its property. Holsinger became a GSF trustee in July 2000, joining in the lawsuit against his own church.
    According to several individuals intimately acquainted with the litigation, Holsinger actually became the driving force in the prolongation of the lawsuit. Shortly after GSF lost in court for the second time in 2006, Holsinger stated that the GSF trustees, which he chaired, would persist in its legal battle. In a stunning denunciation of his own church, Holsinger publicly stated his personal belief that the UMC was “only interested in the Foundation’s money, not its cause” [health care for the poor and disadvantaged]. It was only when Holsinger was named as Surgeon General that the litigation came to an abrupt halt. Within a matter of days after his May 24, 2007, nomination, Holsinger resigned from the GSF trustees and the lawsuit, indicating that to continue would be incompatible with an appointment as Surgeon General. Within a mere two weeks, the suit was finally settled — after over seven years!
    What might have motivated Holsinger to be a part of long, costly litigation against his own church? Following the money offers insight. From July 1997, through June 2006, the GSF and a corporate subsidiary dispersed $8,430,363 in grants — of which $5,314,670 (63 percent) was given to University of Kentucky (UK) programs in medicine, nursing, dentistry, and public health. This included endowing two academic chairs valued at a million dollars each — one in nursing and the other in public health. These endowed chairs and several million in other gifts were awarded while Holsinger was fundraising for these UK programs in his job as Chancellor of the Chandler Medical Center of UK from 1994 through 2003. The grants continued to flow after he left the position of Chancellor, while he continued as a GSF trustee until May 2007.
    The GSF’s contributions to UK medical and its related schools have been so significant that the foundation is listed on the highest tier of honored benefactors to the university, along with major corporations such as Alcoa, DuPont, IBM, and the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.
    What makes the GSF awards to UK more remarkable is that they were awarded in contradiction to the foundation’s own standards of grant-making. According to the grant policy guidelines of the GSF, “[m]ajor organizations” such as “[h]ospitals, [c]olleges and [u]niversities are not eligible as a general statement,” although exceptions could be made by the trustees. The exception in this case became the rule when it came to UK.
    In addition, for more than a decade the return on the investments of the foundation was dismal. In May, 2005, GSF admitted in a letter to making poor return on the assets and to conflicts of interest by some of the trustees. Three GSF trustees had been involved in managing the assets of GSF while serving on the board. The church representatives told the GSF that it was “unconscionable” that after a decade the funds were not being professionally managed by experts who had no personal connection with the board.
    The Surgeon General is our chief health educator, overseeing the work of the 6,000-member Public Health Service. It is a position that requires the highest ethical standards and personal conduct. Before Holsinger is confirmed, the Senate must ask serious questions about his ethics, especially regarding a costly lawsuit against his church.

    Rev. Andrew J. Weaver, Ph.D., is a United Methodist minister and research psychologist who has written extensively on the role of clergy in preventive mental health care. He lives in New York City. He has co-authored 14 books including: Counseling Survivors of Traumatic Events (Abingdon, 2003), Reflections on Grief and the Spiritual Journey (Abingdon, 2005), Counseling Persons with Addictions and Compulsions (Pilgrim, 2007), and Connected Spirits: Friends and Spiritual Journeys (Pilgrim, 2007).

    Lawrence H. McGaughey, Esq., is an attorney practicing law in New York City with specialties in real estate, trusts and estates, and not-for-profit organizations. He has represented many United Methodist churches and organizations and is the Chancellor of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Any views stated in this article are personal and are not intended to represent the views of any client.

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