The Public Health Service's National Center for Health Statistics has been keeping track of the births, illnesses, disabilities and deaths of Americans -- and a host of other health facts -- for 25 years. It was founded Aug. 5, 1960 as a result of a study that called for a single agency to measure the "health status of the nation."

The center inherited two major programs, vital statistics and the national health survey.

During the 1960s, it started tracking institutions for the chronically ill and aged, hospital discharges and physician practices.

In the 1970s, it began keeping information on family-planning and nutrition practices.

And in recent years, it expanded its studies of medical-care economics.

It publishes an annual compendium of statistics called "Health, United States" that serves as an important reference for anyone who needs a quick fact or figure about the state of the nation's health.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, the center's director, Dr. Manning Feinleib, says that his agency "faces as challenging a future now as it did 25 years ago."

His list of "new concerns and opportunities for progress" includes: better documentation of the causes for the apparent slowing of the rate of decline in infant mortality; better monitoring of nutritional status; more data on the health of minorities, the elderly, workers and other groups, and better data on "smaller geopolitical units," presumably states and cities.

Critics have voiced concern that Reagan administration budget cuts may have undermined some of the center's record-keeping ability, particularly the frequency of surveys. Feinleib acknowledges that "government-wide contraints on budget and positions have resulted in changes in the original periodicity" of some surveys.

SMOKE-FREE MEMORIAL . . . In January, 1964, Dr. Luther Terry, then-U.S. surgeon general, and a prestigious advisory committee unveiled a landmark report on smoking and health that linked cigarettes to lung cancer and other diseases.

Terry, who served as surgeon general from 1961 to 1965, continued his antismoking campaign from his home in Philadelphia until his death last March at age 73.

A tribute to Terry's pioneering efforts was paid recently by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who is carrying on Terry's work of educating the American public about the now amply documented health hazards of smoking.

Writing in the current issue of Public Health Reports, the journal of the Public Health Service, Koop called Terry a "champion of public health in America" who "left an indelible mark on his and our world."

"Dr. Terry sounded a powerful alarm, yet he was not an alarmist. He documented the extremities of the damage done by smoking, yet was certainly no extremist. And, although he knowingly took on a powerful enemy, the tobacco industry, Luther Terry was not a headline-grabbing militant," Koop said.

He said, "Dr. Terry now lies in a hero's grave in Arlington National Cemetery" and "one day there will be an appropriate stone or marker on that spot . . . .

"But the best memorial I can think of to honor this humane physician and dedicated public servant would be to make our country a smoke-free society in this century. If we can get America's 50 million cigarette smokers to say, 'Okay, we've had it, we quit' and if we can discourage young people from experimenting with tobacco -- ever, and if we can reduce cigarette consumption to zero, we will have built the kind of landmark that Luther Terry would have wanted."

FOOTNOTE . . . Public Health Reports has budget problems of its own.

In the July-August issue, executive editor Marian Priest Tebben told readers that "There is no Santa Claus. At least not in the world of government publications. That kindly old gentleman . . . is forced finally to bow to the exigencies of economics."

She noted that although the bimonthly publication had been sent free to many individuals and institutions, about a fourth of the 4,000 subscribers who received free copies must now pay $21 a year to continue receiving the publication. Total circulation is about 8,000. Tebben says the change is the result of an Office of Management and Budget directive that requires publications to cover more of their costs.

The Public Health Service has had an official publication since it was created in 1878.

And Public Health Reports has been published in its current format since 1952.

The magazine covers research and health studies conducted by the agency and issues that are important to it, from disease prevention to health-care delivery.