Dame Sally Davies has been appointed as chief medical officer for England, the first woman to hold the post.

She has been interim chief medical officer since May and is currently director general for research and development and chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health.

A DH statement said her responsibilities would include supporting the creation of a public health service for England and providing professional leadership for directors of public health.

Dame Sally said: “I am delighted to take this opportunity as the professional lead to strengthen public health in this country.”

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “Dame Sally has demonstrated her expert knowledge of her field and provided invaluable advice to ministers on a broad range of issues from flu to nutrition to health protection.

“She will play a key role in developing the new public health service, shaping the way the department improves and protects the public’s health. I look forward to working closely with her.”

The government also announced the role of chief nursing officer will be split into two posts. There will be a director of nursing in the Department of Health, who will oversee public health, and a chief nursing officer sitting on the NHS Commissioning Board.

The present chief nursing officer for England, Dame Christine Beasley, will stay on in the post until October.

DH director for social care David Behan will take over Dame Christine’s role on children, family and maternity services.