Skip Navigation
Print Email Facebook Tweet Share
Text Size: A A A

Hugh Smith Cumming (1920-1936)

Hugh Smith Cumming was born in Hampton, Virginia on August 17, 1869. He received his undergraduate education at Baltimore City College and then obtained medical degrees from the University of Virginia Department of Medicine in 1893 and the University College of Medicine (Richmond, Virginia) in 1894 (the latter while serving as house doctor at St. Luke's Hospital in Richmond). In 1894, he obtained a commission as an Assistant Surgeon in the Marine Hospital Service, which was to become the Public Health Service and Marine Hospital Service in 1902 and then the Public Health Service in 1912.

Cumming was assigned to a variety of posts during his early career in the Service, especially quarantine stations in the South and on the Wet Coast. He also served on immigration duty in New York. For 3 years, from February of 1906 to February of 1909, Cumming was detailed to the office of the United States Consul General in Yokohama, Japan, where he was concerned with immigration and quarantinable diseases. From 1913 to 1919, he was assigned to the Hygienic Laboratory (forerunner of the National Institutes of Health) in Washington, D.C. There he was placed in charge of an investigation of the pollution of tidal waters of Maryland and Virginia. One of his concerns was the shellfish industry, and the potential threat to human health from consuming oysters grown in waters polluted with sewage.

During the First World War, Cumming was assigned to the Navy as a sanitary advisor. He was later ordered to Europe to study the sanitary conditions of the ports from which troops would embark and to confer with military authorities to take the necessary action to prevent the introduction of disease into the United States by returning troops. He was also a member of the Typhus Fever Commission to Poland.

On March 3, 1920, Cumming was appointed Surgeon General of the Public Health Service. The Public Health Service (PHS) had been given the task in 1919 of providing health care for veterans, and the Service was still expanding and adjusting to this new responsibility when Cumming took office. In 1922, however, Congress created the Veterans' Bureau, and the responsibility for the health care of veterans was transferred from the PHS to the new Bureau. Another event of Cumming's early tenure was the creation of a national leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana in 1921 when the PHS took control of what had been the Louisiana Leper Home. The facility at Carville became a major center for leprosy treatment and research.

In 1925, Cumming inaugurated a plan for the medical inspection of immigrants abroad in the principal countries of origin. This plan reduced the number of immigrants who were turned back for medical reasons after making the trip to this country. In the 1920s, the PHS also completed the development of a national maritime quarantine system by acquiring the last two quarantine stations operated by States.

A 1929 law authorized the PHS to establish a Division of Narcotics (the name was later changed to Division of Mental Hygiene) and to construct two hospitals for the treatment of drug addicts. Cumming also expanded the research activities of the Hygienic Laboratory, which in 1930 became the National Institute of Health. Under Cumming, the PHS Regular Commissioned Corps was also authorized to admit dentists, pharmacists, and sanitary engineers, the first expansion of the Regular Corps beyond physicians.

In 1930, the PHS was given the responsibility of providing medical and psychiatric care to Federal prisoners. Under the Social Security Act of 1935, the PHS was authorized to provide grants-in-aid to the States for the development of public health work.

An unfortunate legacy of Cumming's tenure was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, begun in 1930 and continued under Cumming's successors. This study of untreated syphilis in African-American males was eventually declared unethical and finally halted in 1973.

Cumming served as President of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States in 1924 and as President of the American Public Health Association in 1931. He also served for a period as Chairman of the Permanent Committee of the International Office of Public Health in Paris.

Hugh Cumming retired as Surgeon General and from active duty in the PHS on January 31, 1936. He continued to serve as Director of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau until 1947. He died in Washington, D.C. on December 20, 1948.

Last Revised: January 4, 2007