The Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy: A Statistical and Biographical Retrospective, Part II

By André B. Sobocinski, historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.


History tells us that the position of deputy Navy surgeon general has not automatically led to selection as Navy surgeon generalVice Adm. Faison is the eleventh of 66 (or 17 percent) deputy surgeons general to have been promoted to the highest office in Navy Medicine.  Of these eleven individuals, six were appointed while serving as deputy Navy surgeon general.

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Admiral Faison seen here at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, is only the second pediatrician to be appointed Surgeon General. U.S. Navy

Vice Adm. Faison, a Virginia native, is the third Navy surgeon general from the Old Dominion state. Statistically, East Coast states have produced the most Navy surgeons general and three states in particular. Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland have produced 16 of the 42 Navy surgeons general. Of the 21 states (including District of Columbia) that have produced a Navy surgeon general, only seven are located west of the Mississippi. Only one Navy surgeon general could claim a foreign country as his birth home. Dr. William Grier, the fifth Navy surgeon general, was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States as a child.

Part II--RADM Pugh on a visit to Korea as SG. Pugh would be the only SG to actually serve as an enlisted Marine
Rear Adm. L. Lamont Pugh, the 21st Surgeon General, seen here during a visit to Korea in 1952. Pugh is the only enlisted Marine to become Surgeon General of the Navy. BUMED Archives

East Coast medical schools also dominate among past Navy surgeons general. Thirty-four attended medical schools east of the Mississippi. Philadelphia medical schools claim the most (12) Navy surgeons general. Of these, the University of Pennsylvania, leads the charge with nine graduates. Interestingly, Vice Adm. Faison is the first graduate of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) to serve as Navy surgeon general.

Before residency programs and specialization in medicine, most Navy surgeons general could be called generalists.  A few exceptions do exist.  The first chief of BUMED, Dr. William P.C. Barton was one of the foremost medical botanists in the United States. Barton published numerous botanical tracts through his career and taught a course on the subject at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Thomas Harris, the second chief of BUMED, was a noted surgeon and medical educator who helped promote the cause of clinical and anatomical education in the country. Years later, Navy surgeons general like Rear Adm. Edward Stitt would help define fields of bacteriology, tropical medicine, and medical research.

Over the last seventy years, general surgery and internal medicine have dominated as the two leading specialties among Navy surgeons general.  Since 1945, there have been seven general surgeons and five internists heading up the Navy Medicine. Over this span, two ophthalmologists, one OB/GYN and one psychiatrist have served as Navy surgeon general.  Vice Adm. Faison is the second pediatrician to serve as the Navy’s top doctor.  He shares this distinction with Vice Adm. Harold Koenig, the 32nd Navy surgeon general.

Part II. At just 43 Surgeon Phineas Horwitz was the youngest individual to serve as Chief of BUMED
At just 43 years old, Surgeon Phineas Horwitz, the 4th Chief of BUMED, was the youngest person to serve as head of the Medical Department. BUMEDArchives

Since October 1965, all Navy surgeons general have served at the rank of vice admiral.  Prior to this, nine Navy surgeons general operated as commodore and twelve as rear admiral (upper half). The most junior person to head Navy Medicine was Dr.  Phineas Horwitz who, owing to his length of service, was equivalent to a lieutenant commander. At 43 years old, Horwitz was also the youngest person to stand at the helm.

Since 1842, the average length of tenure as Navy surgeon general is just over four years.  Two outliers should be noted.  Commodore Newton Bates was only 18 days into office when he died of renal failure on October 18, 1897. And Dr. William Whelan served for nearly 12 years (September 1853-June 1865) before dying in office.  In the twentieth century, Ross McIntire would serve for seven years, six of these wearing a “third hat” as primary physician for President Franklin Roosevelt.  McIntire is one of five Navy surgeons general to attend a sitting president.