Steinfeld, Jesse Leonard, M.D.(Oncologist, Retired, Med. College of Georgia, Anti-Tobacco E) Plaintiff
Jesse Steinfeld served as U.S. Surgeon-General during the tumultuous years of 1969 to 1973. While the Vietnam War dominated the headlines during those years, Steinfeld did much to alert Americans to emerging public health issues and, considering the circumstances, did yeoman work in keep the public mindful of the dangers of smoking.
Jesse Leonard Steinfeld was born in January of 1927 in West Aliquippa, a small Pennsylvania steel town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. As a child he rode the same school bus with an older boy destined to join Steinfeld as one of the town’s most distinguished native sons – composer Henry Mancini.
Steinfeld attended the University of Pittsburgh for his undergraduate degree, receiving a B.S., and then earned an M.D. degree from Western Reserve University in 1949. He then interned at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles and then did a residency at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach, California, where he met his future wife, a nurse named Gen Stokes.
Dr. Steinfeld’s residency was interrupted so that he could serve in a medical capacity on a Coast Guard cutter in the North Atlantic during the Korean War. Upon his return to the States, he received an Atomic Energy Commission fellowship to conduct research. He divided his time between Reed College and the V.A. Hospital in Long Beach. It was at the radioisotope unit at the latter facility cancer became the focus of Steinfeld’s research interests. He completed his residency at the Laboratory of Experimental Oncology at the University of California, San Francisco, and then in 1952 he accepted a position as instructor in medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. With his research increasingly focusing on cancer, two years later he became director of the Radioisotope Laboratory of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, while simultaneously holding an academic appointment at the George Washington University School of Medicine and practicing at D.C. General Hospital.
He joined the faculty of the University of Southern California’s School of Medicine in 1959, establishing and running the school’s first medical oncology unit. He remained at USC for nine years and was eventually promoted to full professor in 1967. During these years, Steinfeld and his wife – who were now the parents of three young daughters – lived in archconservative Orange County. Perhaps significantly, Steinfeld – who had been a registered Democrat when he first lived in California – now registered as an independent.
Steinfeld returned to the National Cancer Institute in 1968 as Associate Director for Programs and was selected as Deputy Director of the Institute the following year. He was also named Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs in 1969 and soon was deluged with bureaucratic responsibilities. According to Steinfeld, he had begun making plans to return to California and his wife and daughters had already moved out there. But HEW Secretary Bob Finch was anxious for Steinfeld to stay in Washington and finally promised to appoint him Surgeon General if he would remain there. At the end of that year President Richard Nixon did indeed appoint Steinfeld the U.S. Surgeon-General.
Jesse Steinfeld accepted the position at a time when it was under attack. For conservatives, the expansion of the role and prominence of the Surgeon General under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations represented the inappropriate intrusion of government into private concerns. They saw the election of Richard Nixon as their chance to do away with crusading Surgeon-Generals. Tobacco-state legislators were particularly anxious to weaken or eliminate an office that they considered to be little more than a bastion of “antismoking propaganda.”
By the time Steinfeld took office, the Surgeon General’s authority had already been weakened by a 1968 reorganization of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He spent much of his tenure fighting to defend his office against calls for its elimination. He was successful in these efforts, as well as fighting for the retention of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Steinfeld would later recall with pride writing a lengthy report to HEW Secretary Elliott Richardson and finally getting the word that it would be retained.
Fighting such battles left him with less time for issues like smoking, but Steinfeld did his best to make it a priority. A lifelong nonsmoker, he had convinced his wife not to smoke and came to his new position with the same passion for spreading that message. When he arrived in his new office in December of 1969 he found no fewer than thirteen ashtrays scattered all around. In an important symbolic move, he replaced them with a sign reading, “Thank You for Not Smoking.” The new surgeon-general also closed his doors to tobacco-industry lobbyists, who began instead taking their messages to Richardson. Steinfeld did, however, continue to encounter industry representatives at social functions and he liked to boast that they had told him he was the “lousiest surgeon-general” ever. He took that as a compliment – a sign that he was doing a good job of educating the public about the dangers of smoking.
Whenever the opportunity arose, he conveyed that message with as much forcefulness as possible. Asked to speak at a convention in Los Angeles in 1971 only a few weeks after President Nixon had famously declared a “war on drugs,” Steinfeld declared that cigarettes were the nation’s number one health problem and talked graphically about the epidemic of lung cancer cases and the dramatic increases in the incidence of tobacco-related illnesses such as heart disease, bronchitis and emphysema. He also pointed out that it was schizophrenic for the American government to be mandating health warnings on cigarette packages while subsidizing tobacco farmers.
Steinfeld was equally outspoken on the issue of smoking in public places. “Nonsmokers have as much right to clean air and wholesome air,” he declared in 1971, “as smokers have to their so-called right to smoke, which I would redefine as a ‘right to pollute.’ It is high time to ban smoking from all confined public places such as restaurants, theatres, airplanes, trains and buses. It is time that we interpret the Bill of Rights for the nonsmoker as well as the smoker.” He called for bans on smoking in enclosed public places such as mass transit systems and even in private establishments such as restaurants and theatres.
In the years since the historic 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, the annual report to Congress had avoided controversy in favor of dry scientific reports. Steinfeld reversed this trend by increasing both the length and the relevance of the report. The 1971 document, which was a record 488 pages, reviewed and noted the significance of many smoking and health studies, including Oscar Auerbach’s landmark study of beagles. The message was reiterated in the 1972 Surgeon General’s Report, which refuted the industry’s claim of an ongoing controversy with the simple statement: “There is no disagreement – cigarette smoking is deadly.” The 1972 report also became the first one to discuss the health issues associated with secondhand smoke exposure, even though the scientific evidence on this topic remained minimal.
Other highlights of Jesse Steinfeld’s tenure as Surgeon General included the passage of the National Cancer Act of 1971 and the introduction of the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the National Health Service Corps. Steinfeld was particularly involved in successful fights to get the administration to support an increased role for government in two emerging public health issues: the fluoridation of drinking water and the banning of cyclamate, an artificial sweetener linked to cancer.
Steinfeld’s term as Surgeon General also forced him to become involved on controversial issues including birth control pills, marijuana, and television violence. The latter issue did permanent damage to his already frayed relationship with the Nixon Administration. After being ordered not to testify before Congress about the effects of televised violence on children, Steinfeld was subpoenaed to do so. He then testified without clearing his testimony and offered blistering criticism of the broadcast industry.
In addition to these controversies, tobacco industry pressure also seems to have played a significant role in ending Steinfeld’s tenure as Surgeon General. Allegations have been made that highly placed tobacco industry executives specifically suggested to President Nixon that firing Steinfeld would be an appropriate reward for their contributions to his reelection campaign. On the day after Nixon’s reelection, Steinfeld was instructed to submit his resignation and did so. He was then asked to write another letter of resignation, but this too proved unsatisfactory. A third effort was finally accepted and Jesse Steinfeld’s four-year tenure as U.S. Surgeon-General ended on January 30, 1973, as Richard Nixon began his abortive second term of office. President Nixon did not name a successor to Steinfeld, nor did Gerald Ford. The Surgeon General’s office was headed by Acting Surgeon General S. Paul Ehrlich until 1977, when Jimmy Carter appointed Julius Richmond to the position.
After leaving Washington, Steinfeld held appointments at a number of medical schools. From 1973 to 1974, he was Director of Oncology at the Mayo Clinic’s Comprehensive Cancer Center while also serving as Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Medical School. He then spent two years as Professor of Medicine at the University of California-Irvine and Chief of Medicine at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach, California. From 1976 to 1983, he served as Dean and Professor of Medicine at the School of Medicine of the Medical College of Virginia. He finished his career with a four-year stint as President of the Medical College of Georgia that lasted from 1983 until 1987.
During these years, he remained outspoken on smoking and health issues and often lent his name and prestige to garnering more attention for the health risks associated with cigarettes. In 1975, he contended that the warning on cigarette packs was not forceful enough and suggested that it should instead read: “Cigarette smoking is dangerous and may kill you.” Two years later, Steinfeld and one of his predecessors, Luther Terry, petitioned the FDA to treat cigarettes as a drug. He frequently spoke out on the controversy over reduced-nicotine cigarettes and related issues. In 1981, he and David Burns delivered a paper at the National Conference on Smoking and Health that denounced the lack of governmental attention to smoking-related diseases.
During his career, Dr. Steinfeld served as president of the American Society for Clinical
Oncology, governor of the American College of Physicians, president-elect of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States and on numerous boards. In 1990, he received a special award from the American Cancer Society’s Committee on Smoking and Health for contributions to combating smoking.
Jesse Steinfeld retired in 1987 and he and his wife reside in California. Since retiring, he has testified for plaintiffs in at least three tobacco-related cases: Dunn [Wiley], Engle and Broin.
“Cigarette Dangers Vary Widely,” Hartford Courant, November 7, 1975.
Marlene Cimons, “Americans Apathetic About Health, Says Surgeon-General,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1970, F3.
“FDA Urged to Treat Cigarettes as Drugs,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1977, B19.
George Getze, “Cigarets No. 1 Peril, Health Chief Says,” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1971, B5.
“Medical Experts Are Wary of Low-Tar Cigarettes,” Washington Post, June 12, 1980, A8.
Wolfgang Saxon, “S. Paul Ehrlich, 72, an Acting Surgeon General,” New York Times, January 13, 2005, A33.
Harold M. Schmeck Jr., “Doctor in Line for H.E.W. Post,” New York Times, June 3, 1977, 55.
“U.S. Surgeon General Quits,” Los Angeles Times, Dec 16, 1972, 6.
For More Biographical Information:
American Men & Women of Science, various editions.
Biographical Directory of the American College of Physicians. 1979 edition. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1979.
Biographical Directory of the American Public Health Association. 1979 edition. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1979. (BiDrAPH).
Current Biography Yearbook. 1974 edition. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1974. (CurBio 1974).
Who’s Who in America, various editions.
Who’s Who in American Jewry. Incorporating The Directory of American Jewish Institutions. 1980 edition. Los Angeles: Standard Who’s Who, 1980. (WhoAmJ).
Who’s Who in Government. First edition, 1972-1973. Chicago: Marquis Who’s Who, 1972. (WhoGov 1).
Who’s Who in Medicine and Healthcare(R) (Marquis(TM)). 1st edition, 1996-1997. New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1997. (WhoMedH 1).
“Chemical Treatment of Advanced Cancer in Man,” (1967), NCI Monograph.
“Women and Children Last? Attitudes toward Cigarette Smoking and Nonsmokers’ Rights, 1971,” New York State Journal of Medicine 83, no. 13 (1983): 1257-1258.
“U.S. Surgeon General Quits,” Los Angeles Times, Dec 16, 1972, 6.
SynonymsSteinfeld, Jesse L.
Steinfeld, Jesse Leonard