This is the grave of Luther Terry.
Born in 1911 in Red Level, Alabama, he grew up in what passed for the elite in this very small south Alabama town. Basically, his dad was the town doctor and probably the most educated person in a place that sounds too horrible to imagine. When he was just a child, Terry rode around helping his dad and even driving the car as his dad went from emergency to emergency in the rural areas he served. Terry went to Birmingham Southern, which is a pretty good liberal arts school in a state that has few of them. He then followed his father into medicine, getting his M.D. degree at Tulane in 1936. He was an intern in Birmingham and then went to Washington University in St. Louis for a pathology internship.
Rather that go into the country doctor world of his father, Terry became interested in research. He stayed at Washington to teach and then went to the University of Texas-Galveston in 1940. In 1942, he went to Baltimore to join the Public Health Service Hospital and the next year, he became Chief of Medical Services. Understand that he was still in his 20s. So this was a doctor on the rise. He became a Rear Admiral of the Public Health Service, but that was not a situation where one was going to see fighting. He was much too valuable for that. His real interest was in cardiovascular research, which was still in its infancy at the time. Lots of Americans died of heart issues that today would be completely preventable. My dad lost his own father in 1951 when he died of a heart attack and lingered at home for quite a long time before finally passing away, as an example. So Terry became possibly the nation’s most important heart researcher by the early 1950s.
In 1958, Terry was hired to be the assistant director of the National Heart Institute. Then in 1961, John F. Kennedy named him as Surgeon General. Up to this time, the Surgeon General was not really a major figure. It was created all the way back in 1871 and some of these people stayed in the office for 20 years, but public health was not exactly a Gilded Age priority. The reason we know Terry today is that he acted aggressively against cigarettes, the first public official to do so. Now, everyone at the time knew in the back of their minds that smoking wasn’t good for you. But nearly everyone smoked. Being a heart doctor, Terry had access to the latest research showing the connections between smoking and heart disease. That research had really ramped up in the late 50s. Then, in 1962, the UK issued an official government report on the health risks of smoking. This opened up the political space for Terry to push for the same thing in the United States. Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States was issued in 1964. Terry chaired the committee. This was really the first time the government had come out against smoking in a very real way. It received front page headlines across the nation. This is the beginning of the modern push to get people to not smoke. For this, Terry is a hero. The report led directly to new laws, including the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 and Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which is what mandated labels on cigarette packs explaining the dangers. At least smokers would now have to confront what they are doing to themselves with every pack.
Prior to Terry, surgeon generals tended to stick around a long time. I don’t think he was forced out in 1965, but he did retire and after that, the position became more partisan, which each president naming their own surgeon general. Terry may have retired, but he remained quite active in the fight for heart health and against smoking. He headed the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health. He also became a consultant for the National Cancer Society. He had one more big push–he wanted to ban television advertisements for tobacco. He succeeded in this mission in 1971.
Then Terry dedicated himself to trying to get smoking banned in the workplace. Now, I’m not old enough to remember that level of public smoking. My father was a smoker and so I grew up around it. It meant I smelled like cigarettes literally my entire childhood. But so did almost everyone else. What I did not ever experience was smoking on airplanes. I didn’t fly until I was 20 so that was after the cigarette ban on airlines but the planes still had ashtrays in every seat. Wild stuff. I can’t even imagine flying in a giant cloud of cancer smoke. Ugh. Anyway, the workplace ban on smoking took awhile and came in dollops, not through a massive federal law. But Terry did a lot to see this through. Moreover, it’s worth noting just what a massive difference all this really did make. In 1964, 43 percent of Americans were regular smokers. By 2001, that had dropped to 23 percent. That’s groundbreaking in terms of making a difference in public health.
During this time, Terry did have an official job as well, as a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was also vice president for medical affairs. That made him in charge of running Penn’s medical school, which was a lot of work. He gave that up in 1971 when he stepped down from his VP job. He basically retired from being a professor until 1975, though he taught on occasion until 1981, when he fully retired. By this point, he was VP of Medical Affairs for ARA, which today is the horrible company Aramark that has made billions on outsourced work in institutions where it hires low wage workers. But that wasn’t really Terry’s doing.
Ironically, it was Terry’s own heart that did him in. In fact, Terry himself was a smoker. His own plan for improving his health upon releasing his report was to switch from cigarettes to a pipe. He developed pretty bad heart disease at a relatively young age and died in 1985, at the age of 73.
Luther Terry is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.
If you would like this series to visit other surgeon generals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. LeRoy Burney is in Indianapolis and C. Everett Koop is in Hanover, New Hampshire. Previous posts in this series are archived here.