PHS Commissioned Corps Celebrates 125 Years

The PHS Commissioned Corps celebrated its 125th birthday on January 4th, 2014. Established by an act of Congress signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on this date in 1889, the PHS Commissioned Corps traces its origins to 1798. In 1798, President John Adams signed into law an Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen establishing the Marine Hospital Service that became the forerunner of the Public Health Service.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Marine Hospital Service was reorganized under the first Supervising Surgeon, John Maynard Woodworth. Woodworth had served as the surgeon of General Sherman's march to the sea during the War. Supervising Surgeon Woodworth organized the Marine Hospital Service along military lines and put his physicians in uniform. This uniformed corps of public health physicians was codified into law in 1889.

Today's PHS Commissioned Corps is a mission-oriented force-in-being consisting of some 6800 hundred public health specialists led by the Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Regina Benjamin. Corps officers serve throughout the federal government in a variety of assignments that include direct clinical care to the nation's most underserved populations, support for Department of Defense health care programs, medical research, administration and regulatory affairs.

Corps officers also respond to public health emergencies. PHS officers have deployed to assist with recovery operations in New York and New Jersey following superstorm Sandy; to Newton, Connecticut to assist with mental health counseling following the Sandy Hook school shootings; and to Saipan in the Northern Marianas Islands to assist with administration and health care for a troubled medical center. While few in number, the PHS Commissioned Corps is an effective public health force multiplier whose officers provide leadership expertise across the broad spectrum of public health operations and administration.

Yet the PHS Commissioned Corps remains one of the most unheralded and unknown components of the federal government - a situation the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service is determined to overcome.

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Commissioned Officers Foundation Receives $1.24 million Bequest

Photo of Captain Robert Lathrop and his dog.

Lightning struck...twice!  The Estate of Captain Robert Lathrop sent a second bequest of $620,000 to the PHS Commissioned Officers Foundation, making the total donation $1.24 million.

Captain Robert Lathrop spent much of his adult life traveling around to the most remote and difficult to access areas of Alaska with his wife, “Petey,” providing dental care for Alaska Natives.  Beginning his service in Alaska with the Territorial Department of Health in 1948 in the ship M/V Hygiene, CAPT Lathrop worked variously in Point Hope, Barrow, and Kotzebue where he joined the PHS Commissioned Corps in 1963 and also immediately became a member of the Commissioned Officers Association, soon after becoming a Life Member of COA.  When the PHS Commissioned Officers Foundation was established in 2000, Captain Lathrop became a regular donor.

The Corps brought Captain Lathrop to the lower 48 where he served as the Aberdeen Area Dental Officer and at Indian Health Service headquarters until his retirement from active service in 1975.  Upon retirement, Bob and Petey returned to Kotzebue and from there travelled around the world, eventually settling in Anchorage in 1988.  His beloved Petey pre-deceased him and Captain Lathrop passed away on June 8, 2011 at Marlow Manor Assisted Living in Anchorage.  He was 87 years old.

Shortly after Captain Lathrop’s death, COF received notice from his estate that Bob had included the Foundation in his will.  On May 18, 2012, COF received the first check in the amount of $620,000 from Captain Lathrop’s estate, the largest gift in the Foundation’s twelve year history.  The second check for $620,000 was received in October of 2013.  The Foundation is deeply indebted to and profoundly humbled by Captain Lathrop’s bequest.

The PHS Commissioned Officers Foundation honored Captain Robert Lathrop with posthumous induction into the John Adams Society.  Follow Captain Lathrop's lead and include the Foundation in your estate planning.  Contact Foundation staff for more information.

2013 USPHS Scientific and Training Symposium a Success

Over 1,000 people attended the 2013 USPHS Scientific and Training Symposium, the 48th annual event for USPHS Commissioned Corps officers and their civilian counterparts from across the country.  By all accounts, the symposium was a big hit.

One junior officer wrote, "This year I had the privilege of being the recipient of the Junior Officer Scholarship for the 2013 USPHS symposium.  I was called to active duty in February 2013 and this provided me with an excellent opportunity to meet and learn from senior officers.  My experience was positive and I plan to be a regular attendee of future symposiums."  Donate to the Koop Living Legacy Fund to support the professional development of junior officers.

Of the officers who attended, approximately 75% paid out of pocket because of lack of government funding.  This demonstrates the need for mission-supporting conferences which provide no-frills training and build esprit-de-corps for the men and women in uniform.

Highlights of the symposium included a dynamite Anchor & Caduceus Dinner with 17th Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who provided the C. Everett Koop Memorial Lecture.  VADM Michael Cowan, USN (Retired), presented Dr. Carmona with the AMSUS Lifetime Achievement Award.  Ben Shelly, President of the Navajo Nation, greeted the crowd as the first elected leader of a sovereign nation to have attended the USPHS Symposium.  He mentioned his commitment to pushing for smoke-free workplaces in casinos.

The Commissioned Officers Association (COA) announced a new member benefit of $7500 scholarships for COA members who seek the MPH@GW.  Officers can earn a completely online and accredited Master of Public Health degree from the George Washington School of Public Health and Health Services.  Click here for more information.

Drs. Joycelyn Elders, David Satcher, and Richard Carmona, the 15th, 16th, and 17th Surgeons General, respectively, sat on a panel discussing the legacy of Dr. C. Everett Koop and how his work relates to health priorities today.  Their comments were insightful and articulate.  The gathering was a rare occasion for former Surgeons General.

The majority of the symposium was devoted to bridging gaps between Federal, state, local, and tribal health organizations to advance the National Prevention Strategy.  Dr. Alan Hinman, a retired rear admiral of the Commissioned Corps, summarizes some of the most important contributors to our progress in preventive care in the United States.  Scores of other officers and civilian professionals shared topics ranging from homelessness to telemedicine, diabetes self-management for American Indians, and response to the 2012 pertussis outbreak in Washington State.

Make a Gift to the Foundation

The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization. All donations are fully tax-deductible as charitable donations for income tax purposes. Donations are recognized at the annual Public Health Symposium and in the newsletter Frontline.

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2013 USPHS Scientific and Training Symposium

2013 Dependent Scholarship Winners

Six students won funding through the 2013 PHS Commissioned Officers Foundation’s Dependent Scholarship program. Eligible applicants were spouses, children and grandchildren of active duty or retired members of the COF affiliate, the Commissioned Officers Association.

Twelve students, mostly sons and daughters of PHS officers, applied for funding. The Selection Committee, composed of active duty and retired officers, scored each application. The reviewers chose the student with the highest score as this year’s winner of the Ronald Lessing Memorial Scholarship, which comes with a cash prize of $1,000. The award is named in honor of Ronald Lessing, the brother of CAPT Melvin Lessing, USPHS (Ret.).


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