Former surgeon general to retire after a varied career.
The distinguished career of Dr. Frank Farmer has taken him from college lecture halls, to the rice paddies of Vietnam, to the office of Florida Surgeon General and, recently, induction into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame.
“I tell people I had three professions,” he said recently, “teaching, medicine and the military.”
Born in New Smyrna Beach and now living in Ormond Beach, Farmer, 74, has decided to retire, thinking he’d better start doing some things he’s been thinking about.
“I read the obituaries and I see people who are younger than me,” he said.
He wants to explore the battlefields of the Civil War, which he taught about as a history professor, and write a history on the Vietnam War using his perspective as a historian and veteran.
“I want to look into what led to the decisions we kept making, and who had responsibility,” he said. “I know books have been written. But I want to get new facts and perspectives.”
He said the Vietnam experience provides valuable lessons, when it comes to deciding whether to engage in a war, and developing a strategy for winning. He believes the big mistake in Vietnam was fighting for a negotiated settlement rather than a victory. Also, people should consider the possible consequences before entering into warfare, such as recent experiences in the Middle East.
Farmer started his career as a teacher. He attended Stetson University and the University of Georgia, attaining a doctorate in history, and taught history at the University of Georgia.
“I enjoyed history, and inspiring young people,” he said.
A new career discovered in war-torn Vietnam
It was 1969, and the country was divided in the debate about the Vietnam War. Following a desire to serve his country, Farmer quit his teaching position and joined the Army. He was deployed to Vietnam.
He knew it might be difficult to return to academia, because of the strong anti-war sentiment. As his tour of duty was running out, he contacted universities about returning as a professor, but received letters stating there were no openings.
“They said they didn’t understand why I would resign and join the Army,” he said.
That’s when his second career got started. His assignment was as a medivac officer in the Mekong Delta, helping the injured.
“They depended on me getting them on a helicopter,” he said. “I found out I liked that part.”
He decided to pursue medicine after being discharged and went to the Medical College of Georgia. After internship and residency, he began private practice as an internist in 1980. In 2004, he became medical director at Covance Inc., a medical products company.
He also continued his military career while practicing medicine.
He was in the inactive Army reserve from 1971 to 1979, and a battalion surgeon in the Florida National Guard from 1985 to 1994. In 1994, he joined the Air Force Reserves and served as flight surgeon at Elgin Air Force Base, until retiring as a colonel in 2004.
“Other doctors were playing golf on the weekends,” he said. “But I enjoyed it.”
Anti-drug pendulum swung too far?
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott called and asked him to be surgeon general. He said as he drove to Tallahassee, he wondered what “epidemic,” or major task, he would be faced with. After he started the job, he received calls from the mothers of people who had died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription drugs, asking him to do something about the problem. He learned that of the top 100 OxyContin prescribing doctors in the U.S., 98 were in Florida.
“People were driving from other states to buy it and then sell on the streets,” he said. “Prescription drugs were rampant.”
During his one-year tenure, he developed a drug monitoring program and more than 300 “pill mills” closed. The number of top OxyContin prescribing doctors in Florida dropped to 13.
He said there was a lot of work done by a lot of other people, including laws passed by the state legislature, which stopped the drug epidemic.
Some say now that drugs for pain are too difficult to get for those who genuinely need them, and Farmer agrees.
“The pendulum has swung too far the other way,” he said. “Anyone who needs pain medicine should get it.”
He said state and federal laws should both be examined, and if any laws are causing the problem, they should be changed.
He also suspects that pharmaceutical companies are finding it too inconvenient to comply with the laws, and they share the blame for patients not being able to get prescriptions they need.