A richly detailed account of the rise and fall of the United States surgeon general.
In this debut, Associated Press national medical correspondent Stobbe offers a history of the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, which, since the 1870s, has been the home base for the federal doctor in charge of America’s health. As the head of the Health Service Commissioned Corps (comprising 6,500 health professionals on call for public health emergencies), the surgeon general has historically been in a position to speak more candidly than other health officials about controversial issues. Most memorably, C. Everett Koop used his post as a bully pulpit to educate the public on AIDS in the 1980s. Most surgeons general have not been so outspoken, however, and many have succumbed to political interference. Today, with diminished powers, the surgeon general can no longer succeed in “increasingly partisan and embattled Washington.” Indeed, the position should probably be abolished. Stobbe tells the stories of 18 people who have held the post, from Hugh Cumming, a courtly Ivy Leaguer who reigned for 16 years (1920-1936) thanks to close ties to presidents, to the polarizing Joycelyn Elders, who served for 15 months (1993-1994) before resigning after speaking candidly about the teaching of masturbation. Activist surgeons general made a difference: Thomas Parran became a celebrity in the 1930s and ’40s as he campaigned against venereal disease; Luther Terry issued a landmark 1964 report on smoking and health. In 1979, Julius Richmond’s Healthy People report changed the way Americans think about their health, focusing on unhealthy behaviors rather than infections and unsanitary conditions. Stobbe chronicles the office’s handling of such issues as pandemics, the polio vaccine, smoking, lead poisoning and obesity.
An important book for policymakers. Many readers will lament the declining state of a post that has contributed much to the country’s health.