Luther Terry

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Luther Leonidas Terry (born September 15, 1911 in Red Level, Covington County; died March 29, 1985 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was an American physician and public health official who served as Surgeon General of the United States from 1961 to 1965. He is most remembered for his warnings against the dangers and the impact of tobacco use on health.

Luther was the son of James Terry, a physician and pharmacist practicing in the small community of Red Level. He came to Birmingham-Southern College to earn his bachelor of science in 1931, and then completed his M.D. at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He interned at Birmingham's Hillman Hospital and completed a residency at Cleveland Hospital and an internship in pathology at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. He worked there as an instructor before joining the faculty of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1940.

In 1942, Terry joined the staff of the Public Health Service Hospital in Baltimore, becoming Chief of Medical Services there the following year. His interest in cardiovascular research led him to accept the position of Chief of General Medicine and Experimental Therapeutics at the National Heart Institute in Bethesda, Maryland in 1950, at first on a part-time basis while continuing his work at the Baltimore hospital. When the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center opened in 1953, Terry's Heart Institute program was moved to the new facility and he devoted his full-time to the job. He also served as the first Chairman of the Medical Board of the Clinical Center (1953–1955) and was concurrently instructor and then assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine from 1944 to 1961. Terry and his team laid the foundations for what has been called "the golden era of cardiovascular clinical investigation".

In 1958, Terry became the Assistant Director of the National Heart Institute. He came to public prominence when President John F. Kennedy selected him as Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, effective March 2, 1961.

Although there had always been an awareness of the negative health effects of smoking, it was not until the 1950s that evidence began to be published suggesting that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and other chronic diseases. At the end of the decade, the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom appointed a committee to investigate the relationship between smoking and health. The committee's report, issued on March 7, 1962, clearly indicated cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer and bronchitis and argued that it probably contributed to cardiovascular disease as well.

Shortly after the release of this report, Terry established the "Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health", which he chaired, to produce a similar report for the United States. Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States, released on January 11, 1964, concluded that lung cancer and chronic bronchitis are causally related to cigarette smoking. The report also noted out that there was suggestive evidence, if not definite proof, for a causative role of smoking in other illnesses such as emphysema, cardiovascular disease, and various types of cancer. The committee concluded that cigarette smoking was a health hazard of sufficient importance to warrant appropriate remedial action.

In June 1964, the Federal Trade Commission voted by a margin of 3-1 to require that cigarette manufacturers "clearly and prominently" place a warning on all advertisements and cigarette packages effective January 1, 1965, stating that smoking was dangerous to health, in line with the warning issued by the Surgeon General's special committee. Their administrative rule was bolstered by passage of the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965.

After leaving the post of Surgeon General on October 1, 1965, Terry continued to play a leading role in the campaign against smoking. He chaired the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health, a coalition of government agencies and non-government organizations, from 1967 to 1969, and served as a consultant to groups such as the American Cancer Society. Terry helped to obtain a ban on cigarette advertisements on radio and television in 1971. Late in his life he led the effort to eliminate smoking from workplaces.

Terry also continued to practice medicine as Vice President for Medical Affairs, and as Professor of Medicine and Community Medicine, at the University of Pennsylvania. There Terry was responsible for managing the University's health sciences schools, comprising some 40 percent of the University's budget, until he gave up the position of Vice President in 1971. He retained his professorial appointment until 1975, when he became Adjunct Professor, and then in 1981 Emeritus Professor. From 1970 to 1983, he also served as President of University Associates, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.

Terry's last years were spent as Corporate Vice President for Medical Affairs for ARA Services of Philadelphia (1980–1983) and then as a consultant. He died of heart failure in March 1985 in Philadelphia. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A collection of Terry's papers are held at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.


  • "Luther Terry" (February 10, 2017) Wikipedia - accessed October 2, 2017