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Historical Highlights

The roots of the Department of Health and Human Services go back to the earliest days of the nation:

See Secretaries of HEW/HHS


Passage of an act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, which established a federal network of hospitals for the care of merchant seamen, forerunner of today's U.S. Public Health Service.


President Lincoln appointed a chemist, Charles M. Wetherill, to serve in the new Department of Agriculture. This was the beginning of the Bureau of Chemistry, forerunner to the Food and Drug Administration.


Appointment of the first Supervising Surgeon (later called Surgeon General) for the Marine Hospital Service, which had been organized the prior year.


Passage of the National Quarantine Act began the transfer of quarantine functions from the states to the federal Marine Hospital Service.


The federal government opened a one-room laboratory on Staten Island for research on disease, thereby planting the seed that was to grow into the National Institutes of Health.


Passage of immigration legislation, assigning to the Marine Hospital Service the responsibility for medical examination of arriving immigrants.


Conversion of Marine Hospital Service into the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service in recognition of its expanding activities in the field of public health. In 1912, the name was shortened to the Public Health Service.


Congress passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act, authorizing the government to monitor the purity of foods and the safety of medicines, now a responsibility of the FDA.

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President Theodore Roosevelt's first White House Conference urged creation of the Children's Bureau to combat exploitation of children.


The Bureau of Indian Affairs Health Division was created, the forerunner to the Indian Health Service.


Creation of the National Institute (late Institutes) of Health, out of the Public Health Service's Hygienic Laboratory.


Passage of the Social Security Act.


Passage of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.


The Federal Security Agency was created, bringing together related federal activities in the fields of health, education and social insurance.


The Communicable Disease Center was established, forerunner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The Cabinet-level Department of Health, Education and Welfare was created under President Eisenhower, officially coming into existence April 11, 1953. In 1979, the Department of Education Organization Act was signed into law, providing for a separate Department of Education. HEW became the Department of Health and Human Services, officially arriving on May 4, 1980. Some highlight dates in HEW and HHS history:


Licensing of the Salk polio vaccine.
The Indian Health Service was transferred to HHS from the Department of Interior.


First White House Conference on Aging.


Passage of the Migrant Health Act, providing support for clinics serving agricultural workers.


Release of the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health.


Creation of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, making comprehensive health care available to millions of Americans.
Also in 1965, the Older Americans Act created the nutritional and social programs administered by HHS’ Administration on Aging.
In addition, the Head Start program was created.


International Smallpox Eradication program established -- led by the U.S. Public Health Service, the worldwide eradication of smallpox was accomplished in 1977.
Also in 1966, the Community Health Center and Migrant Health Center programs were launched.


Creation of the National Health Service Corps.


National Cancer Act signed into law.

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Child Support Enforcement program established.


Creation of the Health Care Financing Administration to manage Medicare and Medicaid separately from the Social Security Administration.


Federal funding provided to states for foster care and adoption assistance.


Identification of AIDS. In 1984, the HIV virus was identified by PHS and French scientists. In 1985, a blood test to detect HIV was licensed.


National Organ Transplantation Act signed into law.


Creation of the JOBS program and federal support for child care.
Passage of the McKinney Act to provide health care to the homeless.


Creation of the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (now the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality).


Human Genome Project established.

Passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, authorizing the food label.
Also, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency (CARE) Act began providing support for people with AIDS.

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The Vaccines for Children Program is established, providing free immunizations to all children in low-income families.


The Social Security Administration became an independent agency.


Enactment of welfare reform under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
Enactment of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).


Creation of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), enabling states to extend health coverage to more uninsured children.


The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 is signed, making it possible for millions of Americans with disabilities to join the workforce without fear of losing their Medicaid and Medicare coverage. It also modernizes the employment services system for people with disabilities.

Initiative on combating bioterrorism is launched.


Publication of human genome sequencing.


The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid is created, replacing the Health Care Financing Administration.
HHS responds to the nation’s first bioterrorism attack -- delivery of anthrax through the mail.


Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness created to coordinate efforts against bioterrorism and other emergency health threats.

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Enactment of the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, the most significant expansion of Medicare since its enactment, including a prescription drug benefit.

Secretaries of HEW and HHS

April 11, 1953 - July 31, 1955

  • Oveta Culp Hobby

August 1, 1955 - July 31, 1958

  • Marion B. Folsom

August 1, 1958 - January 19, 1961

  • Arthur S. Flemming

January 21, 1961 - July 13, 1962

  • Abraham Ribicoff

July 31, 1962 - August 17, 1965

  • Anthony J. Celebrezze

August 18, 1965 - March 1, 1968

  • John W. Gardner

May 16, 1968 - January 20, 1969

  • Wilbur J. Cohen

January 21, 1969 - June 23, 1970

  • Robert H. Finch

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June 24, 1970 - January 29, 1973

  • Elliot L. Richardson

February 12, 1973 - August 8, 1975

  • Caspar W. Weinberger

August 8, 1975 - January 20, 1977

  • David Mathews

January 25, 1977 - August 3, 1979

  • Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

August 3, 1979 - January 20, 1981

  • Patricia Roberts Harris

January 22, 1981 - February 3, 1983

  • Richard S. Schweiker

March 9, 1983 - December 13, 1985

  • Margaret M. Heckler

December 13, 1985 - January 20, 1989

  • Otis R. Bowen, M.D.

March 1, 1989 - January 20, 1993

  • Louis W. Sullivan, M.D

January 22, 1993 - January 20, 2001

  • Donna E. Shalala

February 2, 2001 - January 26, 2005

  • Tommy G. Thompson

January 26, 2005 -

  • Michael O. Leavitt

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