There is currently no U.S. Surgeon General. Like everything else in Washington today, a confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate on President Obama’s choice, Harvard physician Vivek Murthy, MD, has been squashed by politics. Last spring, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the administration was “recalibrating and assessing our strategy on moving forward with the nominee.” In March, The Hill newspaper reported that up to 10 Senate Democrats signaled they would oppose Murthy’s confirmation after the National Rifle Association made it clear Murthy’s support for bans of certain types of firearms and ammunition purchases made him an unthinkable choice.
Now if you’ve forgotten there even is a position called the U.S. Surgeon General post, think C. Everett Koop, MD, or Joycelyn Elders, MD. Koop and Elders were two recent appointees who used their bully pulpit to raise a national discussion about AIDS and teen pregnancy. (Both were lightening rods within their respective administrations – Koop in Reagan’s and Elders in Clinton’s. Elders was eventually dismissed by the White House after wading into too many contentious issues.)
Does the position even matter anymore? Associated Press medical reporter Mike Stobbe thinks it does. He’s written a fascinating book (Surgeon General’s Warning, University of California Press) about the history of the position and those who served. The book explains how the surgeon general became the most powerful and influential public health officer in the country and how those powers were later stripped away. An excerpt from Stobbe’s book appears in the current issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, where he catalogs the ups and downs of the individuals who held the position. The strong ones and the weak ones. Those who made a difference and those who faded away in controversy or without making a mark on the nation’s public health dialogue.
He writes, “Surgeon generals have played that crusader role better and more often than any other national public health figure. Absent such a crusader, the public’s health is prey to the misinformation and self-interest of tobacco companies, snake-oil salesmen and other malefactors.” Listen to my 1:2:1 podcast with Stobbe to hear more of his thoughts.
Illustration, which originally appeared in Stanford Medicine, by Tina Berning