When he was named surgeon general of the United States by President Ronald Reagan, Dr. C. Everett Koop, who died this week at 96, seemed a perfect fit for the administration of a conservative Republican. He was opposed by liberals and women, two groups who feared the devout Presbyterian with the biblical prophet’s beard would stand against abortion rights and for special interest groups with conservative agendas.
Seven years later, as Koop was preparing to return to medicine in the private world, his one-time opponents didn’t exactly take it all back, but they had to acknowledge he’d been a pleasant and even profound surprise.
Koop was an unpopular fellow in North Carolina. On his watch, the war against smoking was stepped up, and he publicly took down any politician who seemed to be waffling on the need to eradicate smoking, even the respected Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a Republican. Koop was tireless in his anti-smoking efforts, taking it to the big cities and small towns of the United States. In 1982, he issued a report calling smoking the nation’s No. 1 health issue. He later called attention to the hazards of second-hand smoke.
As AIDS grew to tragic prominence, Koop became a champion of treating the disease and having compassion for its victims. It stunned some that a person of Koop’s generation would become so outspoken on the subject, which was then controversial and wrongly believed to be confined to the gay population. In 1986, he issued a report on the looming AIDS crisis arguing that “this silence (on AIDS) must end.”
The doctor, a pediatric surgeon who devoted the rest of his very long life to educating the public on health, proved himself to be first a man of science and medicine. He brought the post of surgeon general to new prominence, saying he believed himself to be the “health conscience” of the nation and that his power came not from a political appointment but from “moral suasion.”
Koop’s arrival caused a stir, but his legacy will be about what he did to improve the public’s health and, in some instances, its attitudes.