Most Americans (and likely many folks around the world) think of the US military as comprising the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. However, there are also the United States Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Corps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Commissioned Officer Corps. Wikipedia explains that these two services have their roots working closely with or being part of the rest of the US military, but that their missions and structure have diverged considerably from the other five branches.

Given these considerations, what have been the advantages or disadvantages of having the NOAA and PHS corps be commissioned and uniformed versus structuring them as civilian functions? Are there any specific historical instances that could illustrate these advantages or disadvantages?

Note that I have asked a similar question on Politics about the present-day considerations.

  • 2
    The way you've phrased your question (explicitly about today) puts it out of scope for history. Might be appropriate for politics. Might be the answer is that governments never abandon institutions; the first law of bureaucracy is to never give up anything. Amusingly, when I was commissioned a Naval Officer, I discovered that I had to salute my friend the midwife because she outranked me (PHS).
    – MCW
    Aug 12, 2017 at 0:15
  • @MarkC.Wallace: I appreciate this comment both for the story and the scope comment. I've attempted to make the question more relevant to History.
    – user25793
    Aug 12, 2017 at 0:30

1 Answer 1


The NOAA Commissioned Corps descends from the Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps. Before the USA entered WWI, the Coast and Geodetic Survey was a Federal civilian organisation responsible for surveying the USA's coasts and interior. They were needed to do surveying for the war effort in WWI, and the Army and Navy officers normally seconded to the Survey had been withdrawn to do military duties. If civilians were captured on the battlefield doing surveying, they could be shot as spies, so the Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps was organised by commissioning the civilians. And it's stayed a commissioned organisation ever since, although the name has changed, as have the scientific fields they cover.

The USPHS Commissioned Corps descends from the Marine Hospital Service, which was first set up in 1798 to provide medical care to seamen, including naval personnel from 1799. In 1870, it was re-organised as the Marine Hospitals Service, whose first chief was Dr John Maynard Woodworth. He wanted his doctors to be a mobile work force, to be stationed wherever they were needed, and mandated uniforms. As a federal health-care organisation, the MHS' remit expanded in many cases where the federal government needed to provide medical services. Since their hospitals were in major ports, they became responsible for quarantine and other public health functions. In 1912, they became the Public Health Service. Their hospitals began to close after budget cuts during the Nixon administration, and are all gone now. The Commissioned Corps has survived as a public health organisation, and as a provider of medical staff to the other uniformed services.

For both organisations, their advantage is that it's easier to integrate their officers into the larger uniformed services than civilians. This is useful in wartime: essentially, they provide reserves of scientifically trained officers for the military. Other countries use more normal military reserve services, or commission civilians when necessary. The drawback is that the government can't get rid of them so easily as civilian staff, when it wants to.

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