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Public Health Service (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-09-18 by rick wyatt
Keywords: public health service | departmental | united states |
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[Public Health Service Flag] image by Joe McMillan, 31 August 1999

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The U.S. Public Health Service wears Navy style uniforms, has a commissioned officer corps and falls within the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Public Health Service flag is yellow with a blue PHS seal centered on the flag. The diameter of the seal is 1/2 the hoist. In 52 x 66 inch size, with a blue fringe, it serves as the Corps color. In 10 x 19, 5 x 9 1/2, or 3.52 x 6.69 foot sizes, it flies over PHS posts that are commanded by other than flag officers (or if a flag officer is not present). In these cases, the PHS flag is the same size as the U.S. flag with which it is flown. On boats, it is either 32 x 48 or 24 x 36 inches, depending on the size of the boat, and flies at the starboard yardarm, unless a flag officer is aboard. In that case, the PHS flag is shifted to the port yardarm.

PHS flag officers hold one of four grades. Their flags are flown in lieu of the PHS flag at PHS posts under their command or to which they are paying official visits, as well as at the starboard yardarm of PHS vessels on which they are present. You might see them afloat in port areas, etc, since the PHS is the organization charged with enforcing health regulations for entry into the United States.

Sources: Personnel Instruction 1, "Public Health Service Flags and Automobile Plates," Subchapter CC29.9, Commissioned Corps Personnel Manual; Public Health Service insignia scanned and redrawn from Government Printing Office sheet of official seals and emblems.
Joe McMillan, 31 August 1999

The flag adopted in 1912 did not have lettering encircling the anchor and caduceus. I don't know when the lettering was added, but [u9s38] shows the PHS flag without it.
Joe McMillan, 5 June 2002

Quoting the USPHS website:

"The Public Health Service seal was originally developed by John Maynard Woodworth, the first Supervising Surgeon (the title was later changed to Surgeon General) of the Marine Hospital Service (forerunner of the PHS). Woodworth, who was appointed in 1871, appears to have designed the seal early in his tenure. It featured a caduceus crossed with a fouled anchor and carried the words "U.S. Marine Hospital Service" and the dates 1798-1871. The 1798 date refers to the year of passage of the act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, which set up the marine hospital system that evolved into the PHS. The latter date represents the year of Woodworth's appointment and the reorganization of the Service associated with the creation of the Supervising Surgeon position. Today's seal is similar, except that it carries the words "U.S. Public Health Service," and only one date (1798).

The fouled anchor signified a seaman in distress or a sick seamen. The caduceus (a winged wand with two serpents intertwined) is often used today as a symbol of medicine, and it is tempting to think that Woodworth intended it to be interpreted in this way. However, the use of the caduceus to represent medicine was not so common in 1871, and it was more often associated with the god Mercury and used to symbolize trade or commerce. A more historically correct symbol of medicine is the staff of Asklepios (Aesculapius), consisting of a wand or staff with one serpent coiled around it and associated with the Greek god of healing, Asklepios. Ralph Williams, in his history of the PHS (1951), speculates that Woodworth used the caduceus of Mercury in the seal because of the Service's relationship with merchant seamen and the maritime industry.

The PHS flag, consisting of a blue PHS seal on a yellow background, appears to have evolved out of the quarantine flag used by the Service on quarantine vessels and stations. The use of a yellow flag to denote quarantine dates back to the eighteenth century. By the early twentieth century, the PHS had added its seal to the traditional yellow flag. Over the course of the twentieth century, a version of the quarantine flag with the seal came to be used more broadly in connection with various PHS activities and was sometimes referred to as the PHS flag. By the late 1960s, specifications had been formally established for the PHS flag as follows: "The Public Health Service flag shall have a yellow background (gold hue) with a blue seal of the Service centered on the flag." The blue and yellow colors of the PHS of course represent its roots in maritime and quarantine activities.
Ivan Sache, 26 November 2006

Surgeon General

[Public Health Service - Surgeon General] image by Joe McMillan, 31 August 1999

The Surgeon General is normally equivalent to a vice admiral, but, if serving concurrently as Assistant Secretary for Health, holds four-star rank. Either way, the SG's flag is blue with a white PHS corps device centered on it. It comes in the same sizes as the PHS flag as well as in an 18x26 inch size for automobiles. For indoor/ceremonial use, the SG's flag has white fringe, cord, and tassels. The auto flag also has a white fringe.
Joe McMillan, 31 August 1999

Deputy Surgeon General

[Public Health Service - Deputy Surgeon General] image by Joe McMillan, 31 August 1999

The Deputy Surgeon General ranks as a rear admiral and flies a flag (us_dsg) identical to the SG's but with the colors reversed. The fringe for indoor/ceremonial flags is white and blue, the cord and tassels of intertwined blue and white cords. The fringe on the DSG's auto flag is plain blue.
Joe McMillan, 31 August 1999

Assistant Surgeons General

Assistant Surgeons General, who equate to either rear admirals or rear admirals (lower half), have the same flag as the DSG, but with blue fringe, cord and tassels. The ASG's auto flag has no fringe.
Joe McMillan, 31 August 1999

Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services - Admiral

[Admiral Assistant Secretary Department of Health and Human Services] image by Joe McMillan, 23 January 2015

This is the positional flag for the Assistant Secretary (of Health and Human Services) for Health, when the office-holder is a US Public Health Service commissioned officer with the rank of Admiral. It was adopted in approximately March 2008, and this far has only been used by one ASH, Dr. (Admiral) Joxel Garcia from 2008 to 2009. The last office-holder was a civilian, Dr. Howard Koh, from 2009-2014. As a civilian, he used the standard Assistant Secretary for Health flag. From The Office of the ASH:

"This flag was designed by Dr. (Admiral) John Agwunobi, the ASH from 2005-2007, but he did not authorize having it made during his tenure. The flag was manufactured for the commissioning ceremony of Dr. Garcia, and he is the only ASH for whom the flag has been displayed. This flag can only be displayed and/or used by the ASH when the official in the position is also commissioned as a 4 star Admiral in the USPHS Commissioned Corps. Distinguishing/positional flags can only be displayed when the official who has been appointed to occupy the position is present and/or actively participating in an event."
Dave Fowler, 16 January 2015

Marine Hospital Service 1870-1902

[Admiral Assistant Secretary Department of Health and Human Services] image by Rob Raeside, 12 September 2011

Based on an image provided by Ben Cahoon from

Public Health Service 1902-1912

[Admiral Assistant Secretary Department of Health and Human Services] image by Rob Raeside, 12 September 2011

Based on an image provided by Ben Cahoon from