Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service

Scientist Professional Advisory Committee

A Brief History of the USPHS and the Scientist Category

The USPHS Commissioned Officers Corps was formally established in 1889 to provide highly-trained and mobile health professionals, who administer programs to promote the health of the Nation, understand and prevent disease and injury, assure safe and effective drugs and medical devices, deliver health services to Federal beneficiaries, and furnish health expertise in time of war or other international emergencies.

Commissioning Nonmedical Officers in the Regular Corps

At its inception, all members of the Commissioned Corps were physicians and the narrowly defined mission of the Corps was to provide a professional body of medical officers on short notice. As the role of the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service expanded, so too was the mission of the Corps. In 1902, Supervising Surgeon General Walter Wyman recognized the need to commission nonmedical officers in the Corps. An early draft of legislation passed in 1902 suggested that the directors of Divisions at the Laboratory of Hygiene (later renamed the National Institutes of Health), known as “Professors” should be commissioned officers. There were differences in pay between Professors and Commissioned Officers, which made retention of talented scientists problematic. However, due to opposition by Commissioned Medical Officers, provisions for commissioning nonmedical officers were not in the final bill. Surgeon General Hugh Cumming raised the issue of commissioning nonmedical officers again in the 1920’s, an era in which there was a movement to identify and reorganize to consolidate the various public health activities and eliminate duplication of effort and the associated intricate and costly bureaucracy. Parts of Cumming’s proposal were included in a bill introduced by Congressman James S. Parker of New York in 1926, and called for commissioning of sanitary engineers, dental officers, and scientists. A vote on the Parker Bill was delayed in May 1928 because of strong opposition that was based, in part, on objections to commissioning scientists and other nonmedical officers. The bill was revived the following year and after passing both houses was sent to conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills. A little over a week later, President Calvin Coolidge vetoed the Parker Bill, stating that it was unconstitutional to commission nonmedical personnel.

The Parker Bill Revived

The Parker Bill was revived and revised in 1929 to address the concerns expressed by President Coolidge to the previous bill. Changes to the personnel section included rewording sections to indicate that nonmedical officers would be appointed to the Commissioned Corps in accordance with regulations agreeable to the President and commissioning of scientist officers was limited to scientists at or above the level of Division Director. In early 1930, the Parker Bill was approved by Budget Director, J. Clawson Roop but with a disappointing cutback in the number of nonmedical officers to be commissioned from 110 to 55. On April 1, 1930, the Parker Bill passed the Senate and was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover on April 9, 1930. At last, there was a provision in the law for commissioning scientist officers in the regular corps of the Public Health Service. The law allowed for the commissioning of three research scientists annually after that time.

The Public Health Acts of 1943 and 1944

In the early 1940’s there was a reorganization of the PHS which resulted from the passage of both the Public Health Law of 1943 and Public Health Law of 1944. These laws were shepherded through the system by Surgeon General Thomas Parran. Title 2 of the 1944 PHS Act established the Commissioned Corps’ leadership role in the PHS as well as strengthening the authority of the Surgeon General. The 1944 Act also incorporated provisions of the 1943 Act which had expanded the eligibility of health professionals other than medical officers to join the Regular Corps. The Commissioned Corps overall grew by five-fold between 1940 and 1945.

Establishment of the Scientist Category

The Scientist Category was established in 1945 and a number of civil service scientists converted over to the Regular Corps after passing appropriate examinations. On July 1, 1946, there were eleven Scientist Officers listed on Active Duty in the Official List of Commissioned and Other Officers of the Public Health Service. By January 1, 1948 the number of Scientist Officers had swelled to fifty. In 1984 the Scientist Category became an “active” category with the establishment of the Scientist Professional Advisory Committee (SciPAC) and the assignment by the Surgeon General of the first Chief Professional Officer (CPO), CAPT Jim McTigue. See the Chief Scientist Officer page for a complete list of past CPOs. A number of Scientist Officers have reached the level of Flag Rank over the years, with the latest being RADM David Ashley in 2012.

The Scientist Category Today

The Scientist Category of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is comprised of officers who hold a doctoral degree, which is the qualifying degree for their commissioning. The assigned billets and duties are diverse within the category and include a wide array of career tracks such as research scientist, regulatory scientist, environmental health scientist, epidemiologist, psychologist, and laboratorian, to name a few. As of December 2015, there were 335 Scientist Officers in the Scientist Category encompassing over 46 distinct disciplines in their primary assignments. Each of these professions contributes to the Commissioned Corps mission in unique and valuable ways. Scientist Officers serve in positions across 18 federal agencies and operating divisions (OPDIVS) with 46% assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 19% assigned to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 12% assigned to Department of Defense TRICARE Management Activity (DOD TMA), 6% assigned to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the remaining 17% assigned to 14 other agencies and OPDIVs. Scientist Officers are stationed all across the U.S.—from the nation’s capital to Atlanta and Anchorage—working with headquarters offices, field offices, state health departments, and tribes. Some Scientist Officers are also placed in international assignments by their agency or OPDIV. The rich history of the Scientist Category has provided the strong foundation for the work we do today.

Page Last Modified on 2/16/2023

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