Marine Hospital Service
Looking after the health of merchant mariners during the early years of the nation
The US Marine Hospital Service was modeled after the system in the United Kingdom for providing medical care for members and veterans of the merchant marine. It was created by passage in 16 July 1798 of the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen. The Act established a tax of 20 cents per month to be deducted from seamen’s wages by the Collector of Customs. Funds raised were paid into the Hospital Fund for the construction and operation of marine hospitals to be built in the major sea ports and river ports of the United States. Seamen could receive medical care at these facilities without charge. The marine hospitals were the first publicly-funded federal health care system in the United States. The marine hospitals were drastically reorganized in 1871 along military lines, with the doctors wearing uniforms for the first time. The individual in charge, Doctor John Maynard Woodworth, was appointed Supervising Surgeon, the forerunner of the Surgeon General of the United States. Gradually, the mission of the Marine Hospital Service was expanded to include domestic and foreign quarantine, as well as providing health care to members of the US Coast Guard, certain other federal agencies, and Native Americans, among others. In 1902, the name was changed to the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service and, in 1912, to the Public Health Service. Today, the Public Health Service and its Commissioned Corps are part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Most of its marine-related functions have moved elsewhere, but the Department continues to inspect passenger vessels embarking passengers in US ports under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vessel Sanitation Program.