Luther Terry (1911-1985) served as United States Surgeon General in the 1960s. He led a successful public health campaign that warned of the dangers of cigarette smoking and persuaded millions to quit. He also initiated the surgeon general's warning program about smoking that continues to the present. Terry is one of three Alabama physicians to serve as surgeon general, along with David Satcher and Regina Benjamin.
Luther Leonidas Terry was born in Red Level, Covington County, on September 15, 1911, the son of James Edward and Lula Maria Durham Terry. After earning his bachelor's degree from Birmingham-Southern College in 1931, Terry went on to receive his M.D. degree from Tulane University in 1935. He served an internship at Hillman Hospital in Birmingham, then became assistant intern and later chief resident at University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio. On June 29, 1940, he married Beryl Janet Reynolds of Elyria, Ohio, with whom he had a daughter and two sons.
In fall 1940, Terry joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Galveston, where he became an associate professor of preventive medicine and public health and also joined the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, which was responsible for overseeing public health measures at the federal level. From 1943 to 1953 Terry was chief of the medical service at the Public Health Service Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and from 1950-58 was chief of the Clinic of General Medicine and Experimental Therapeutics at the National Heart Institute. During this time Terry also served on the cardiovascular study section of the National Institutes of Health.
Terry's accomplishments in these high profile positions earned him an appointment as the U.S. Surgeon General in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. As surgeon general, Terry quit smoking in late 1963 and decided to make it his mission to urge millions of smoking Americans to do the same. On January 11, 1964, he delivered the first "Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health," which conclusively determined that smoking was an unmitigated health hazard, causing cardiovascular disease, emphysema, and lung cancer. Based upon more than 7,000 peer-reviewed articles, Terry's report concluded that cigarette smoking was a sufficient enough health problem to warrant "appropriate remedial action." His work and campaigns by successive surgeons general yielded results, cutting the percent of Americans who were steady smokers in 1964 from 43 to 22.8 percent as of 2001. Terry's actions led to more than 20 subsequent reports on the risks of smoking and paved the way for the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965, which required a warning label on each package of cigarettes, and Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which modified and strengthened the warning label from "May be Hazardous to Your Health" to "The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health." After his stint as surgeon general, Terry remained active in health affairs and became a consultant to the National Cancer Society and chair of the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health. From 1970 to 1983 he served as president of University Associates, a nonprofit consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
Described as a "quiet, gentlemanly southerner," Luther Terry died in Philadelphia on March 29, 1985, and is buried at Arlington
National Cemetery. With the possible exception of Senator Lister Hill, no Alabamian was more influential in directing and improving public health during the twentieth century.
Finkel, Ed. "He helped clear the air: former Surgeon General Luther Terry helped lead crusade against smoking." Modern Healthcare (March 1, 2004): H6.
The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Terry, Luther Leonidas, s.v. Vol. M. New York: James T. White, 1978.
Michael A. Flannery
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published July 16, 2007
Last updated October 14, 2010