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U.S. Public Health Service

U.S. Public Health Service

Note: The history of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) developed in stages:  1) the U.S. Marine Hospital Service (1798-1902), 2) the U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service (1902-1912), and 3) the U.S. Public Health Service (1912-present).

Marine Hospital Service (MHS) 1798: The first stage of the PHS grew out of a need for healthy seamen in our infant republic, which relied so much on the sea for trade and security. These seamen traveled widely, often became sick at sea, and then, away from their homes and families, could not find adequate health care in the port cities they visited or would overburden the meager public hospitals then in existence. Since they came from all the new states and former colonies, and could get sick anywhere, their health care became a national or Federal problem. A loose network of marine hospitals, mainly in port cities, was established by Congress in 1798 to care for these sick and disabled seamen, and was called the Marine Hospital Service (MHS).

The Federal Government had only three executive departments then to administer all Federal programs — State, Treasury, and War. The MHS was placed under the Revenue Marine Division of the Treasury Department. Funds to pay physicians and build marine hospitals were appropriated by taxing American seamen 20 cents a month. This was one of the first direct taxes enacted by the new republic and the first medical insurance program in the United States. The monies were collected from shipmasters by the customs collectors in different U.S. ports.

The President was granted the authority to appoint the directors of these hospitals, but later allowed the customs collectors to do it. The appointments thus became influenced by local politics and practices. Often hospitals were built to meet political rather than medical needs. Each hospital was managed independently and the Treasury Department had no supervisory mechanism to centralize or coordinate their activity. For example, the report of a Congressional commission formed to investigate the MHS stated in 1851 that the “hospital at Mobile is as distinct and different from that at Norfolk or New Orleans as if it were a hotel and the other a hospital…”

Lack of money, in addition to the lack of any supervisory authority, was another major problem for the MHS. The demand for medical services far exceeded the funds available. For that reason sailors with chronic or incurable conditions were excluded from the hospitals and a four-month limit was placed on hospital care for the rest. Additional funds had to be appropriated constantly from Congress in order to maintain the Service and to build the hospitals. Because of these problems Congress was forced to act and in 1870 reorganized the MHS from a loose network of locally-controlled hospitals to a centrally-controlled national agency with its own administrative staff, administration and headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Through this reorganization, the MHS became a separate bureau of the Treasury Department under the supervision of the Supervising Surgeon, who was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury. The title of the central administrator was changed to Supervising Surgeon General in 1875 and to Surgeon General in 1902. Additional money to fund the reorganized Service was appropriated by raising the hospital tax on seamen from twenty to forty cents per month. The money collected was deposited in a separate MHS fund.

Taxing seamen to fund the MHS was abolished in 1884. From 1884 to 1906 the cost of maintaining the marine hospitals was paid from the proceeds of a tonnage tax on vessels entering the United States, and from 1906 to 1981, when the Public Health Service hospitals were closed, by direct appropriations from Congress.

The 1870 reorganization also changed the general character of the Service. It became national in scope and military in outlook and organization. Medical officers, called surgeons, were required to pass entrance examinations and wear uniforms. In 1889, when the Commissioned Corps was formally recognized by legislative action, the medical officers were given titles and pay corresponding to Army and Navy grades. Physicians who passed the examinations were appointed to the general service, rather than to a particular hospital, and were assigned wherever needed. The goal was to create a professional, mobile, health corps, free as possible from political favoritism and patronage, and able to deal with the new health needs of a rapidly growing and industrializing nation.

Epidemics of contagious diseases, such as small pox, yellow fever, and cholera, had devastating effects throughout the 19th century. They killed many people, spread panic and fear, disrupted government, and caused Congress to enact laws to stop their importation and spread. As a result of these new laws, the functions of the MHS were expanded greatly beyond the medical relief of the sick seamen to include the supervision of national quarantine (ship inspection and disinfection), the medical inspection of immigrants, the prevention of interstate spread of disease, and general investigations in the field of public health, such as that of yellow fever epidemics.

To help diagnose infectious diseases among passengers of incoming ships, the MHS established in 1887 a small bacteriology laboratory, called the Hygienic Laboratory, at the marine hospital on Staten Island, New York. That laboratory later moved to Washington, D.C., and became the National Institutes of Health, the largest biomedical research organization in the world.

U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Services (PHMHS) 1902: To better consolidate these increased functions of the MHS, including medical research, and give them legal powers, Congress passed an act in 1902 that expanded the scientific research work at the Hygienic Laboratory and gave it a budget. The bill also required the Surgeon General to organize annual conferences of local and national health officials in order to coordinate better state and national public health activities, and changed the name of the MHS to the Public Health and Marine Hospital Services (PHMHS) to reflect its broader scope.

The PHMHS was not the only government agency engaged in health-related work. The enforcement of the pure food and drugs law, passed in 1906, was placed in the hands of the Bureau of Chemistry of the Department of Agriculture. The Federal inspection of meat entering interstate commerce, also mandated by law in 1906, was done by the Bureau of Animal Industry of the Department of Agriculture. The Bureau of the Census was authorized in 1902 to collect vital statistics — data relating to health and disease from around the country.

U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) 1912: Efforts were made during the early decades of the 20th century by both political parties and by people inside and outside of government concerned with the nation’s health to combine public health-related work being done by various Federal agencies, but they were unsuccessful in Congress. On August 14, 1912 the name of the PHMHS was changed to the Public Health Service (PHS) and further broadened its powers by authorizing investigations into human diseases (such as, tuberculosis, hookworm, malaria, and leprosy), sanitation, water supplies and sewage disposal, but went no further.

Real consolidation began in June 1939, when the PHS was transferred by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the newly created Federal Security Agency (FSA), which combined a number of New Deal government agencies and services related to health, education, and welfare. Over 140 years of association between the PHS and the Treasury Department came to an end. All of the laws affecting the functions of the services were also consolidated for the first time in the Public Health Services Act of 1944.

The FSA was a non-cabinet-level agency whose programs grew to such size and scope that, in 1953, President Eisenhower submitted a reorganization plan to Congress that called for the dissolution of the FSA and the transfer of all its responsibilities to a newly created U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). A major objective of this reorganization was to ensure that the important areas of health, education, and social security be represented in the President’s cabinet. In 1979, HEW’s educational tasks were transferred to the new Department of Education and the remaining divisions of HEW were reorganized as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Source: National Library of Medicine —

5 Replies to “U.S. Public Health Service”

  1. How do we cite this essay? Also please add more detail re 1912, since this apparently the year a charge was made by someone (President? Congress?) for PHS to create first water quality standards. These came out in 1913 or 1914 (depending on website — could you provide an accurate date, please?) but apparently there were disputes over all but bacteriological standards, so chemical and physical standards were delayed til 1925. Not sure of accuracy of this either — Again would like the definitive version of this important, historical ‘first’ to come from you — can you help? Thanks!

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