What does it mean to be the nation's doctor? In this engaging narrative, journalist Mike Stobbe examines the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, emphasizing that it has always been unique within the federal government in its ability to influence public health. But now, in their efforts to provide leadership in public health policy, surgeons general compete with other high-profile figures such as the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Furthermore, in an era of declining budgets, when public health departments have eliminated tens of thousands of jobs, some argue that a lower-profile and ineffective surgeon general is a waste of money. By tracing stories of how surgeons general like Luther Terry, C. Everett Koop, and Joycelyn Elders created policies and confronted controversy in response to issues like smoking, AIDS, and masturbation, Stobbe highlights how this office is key to shaping the nation’s health and explailns why its decline is harming our national well-being.
It's been a long slide to irrelevance for America's surgeon general, Associated Press medical journalist Stobbe argues in this history of "America's doctor." Stobbe contends that politicization of the job "stripped away most of the position's responsibilities" and made the surgeon general vulnerable to White House whims. Nevertheless, from its inception in 1871 the men and women appointed used their "bully pulpit" to tackle the most important health issues of the day. Stobbe hails those who made enduring contributions, like Luther Terry, whose report on smoking "proved a turning point" in the general population's attitudes towards its dangers; William Stewart, who helped lead the desegregation of hospitals and decried the lack of quality care for the poor; and C. Everett Koop, who defied expectations of his social conservatism and elevated the job to such heights that reporters began describing his job as that of the "nation's doctor." He also unveils those who condoned unconscionable treatment of public health issues, like Hugh Cumming who "blessed the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment" in the 1930s that secretly deprived black participants effective treatment. Stobbe's skillful, engaging report is especially relevant today as the public's health continues to challenge the nation's leaders.