Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop died in New Hampshire Monday at the age of 96. Dr. Koop used his office to raise AIDS awareness in America in the early days of the plague when few spoke out and as a platform for to combat smoking.
C. Everett Koop, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 14, 1916, was one of the most prominent surgeons general in U.S. history, speaking directly to the American people on issues others feared to touch. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, he served until the first year of the George H.W. Bush administration in 1989.
As The Associated Press noted, Koop used his office as a “bully pulpit” to champion health concerns. The surgeon general, while the nation's highest-ranking health official, was once deemed a low-profile position, notes AP, but Koop changed that by being an active leader while openly discussing the emerging AIDS epidemic, sex education, abortion, dietary concerns and smoking.
Koop, a conservative and devout Christian, surprised many with his frank discussion of America’s health. A graduate of Dartmouth College, was a famous pediatric surgeon before becoming surgeon general. Dartmouth President Carol L. Folt said Monday, “Dr. Koop did more than take care of his individual patients—he taught all of us about critical health issues that affect our larger society.”
Koop was at the forefront of identifying the risks of smoking, calling for a “smoke-free nation.” Many public health policies involving smoking, such as the smoking ban in public places like bars and restaurants, could be credited to Koop and his 1989 Surgeon General report, “The Health Consequences of Smoking-Nicotine Addiction.” Koop also raised awareness about the dangers of second-hand smoke and strengthened the “Surgeon General’s Warning” labels found on cigarette packages.
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Wiley W. Souba, M.D., dean of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, said Koop “did not back down from deeply rooted health challenges or powerful interests that stood in the way of needed change. Instead, he fought, he educated, and he transformed lives for the better.”
Koop supported sex education and promoted condom usage in the face of the AIDS crisis, notes the Wall Street Journal. An opponent of abortion, he nevertheless challenged the claim that it harmed a woman’s health. Koop also cautioned America about its eating habits, especially high-fat diets, and the dangers of drinking.
In addition to his crusade against smoking, Koop’s lasting legacy may be his AIDS advocacy. Initially, he was going to have no say in AIDS policy, notes WSJ, but defying the Reagan White House, he spearheaded AIDS awareness and used his office to discuss AIDS with America.
In 1986, Koop released a surgeon general’s report on AIDS, notes USA Today, which detailed how the disease was transmitted, who was at risk, safety measures and helped dispel myths surrounding AIDS. In 1988, he sent an AIDS pamphlet to 100 million homes, the largest such health-related public mailing, notes Think Progress. Through these reports, Koop promoted condom usage for sexually active individuals and pushed sex education in school.
While some opposed Koop’s appointment as surgeon general due to his anti-abortion stance, his time in office proved he valued science and medicine above all else. Despite disapproving homosexuality, he understood the necessity for unbiased education when it came to America’s health. Koop passed away in his New Hampshire home and is survived by his wife, Cora Koop, and four children.