C. Everett Koop Dead: Former Surgeon General Dies At 96
HANOVER, N.H. -- C. Everett Koop, who raised the profile of the surgeon general by riveting America's attention on the then-emerging disease known as AIDS and by railing against smoking, has died at age 96.
An assistant at Koop's Dartmouth institute, Susan Wills, said he died Monday in Hanover. She didn't disclose his cause of death.
Koop wielded the previously low-profile post of surgeon general as a bully pulpit for seven years during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
An evangelical Christian, he shocked his conservative supporters when he endorsed condoms and sex education to stop the spread of AIDS.
He carried out a crusade to end smoking in the United States – his goal had been to do so by the year 2000. A former pipe smoker, he said cigarettes were as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
Koop's impact was great, although the surgeon general has no real authority to set government policy. He described himself as "the health conscience of the country."
"My only influence was through moral suasion," Koop said just before leaving office in 1989. By then, his Amish-style silver beard and white, braided uniform were instantly recognizable.
Out of office, he switched to business suits and bow ties, but continued to promote public health causes, from preventing childhood accidents to better training for doctors.
"I will use the written word, the spoken word and whatever I can in the electronic media to deliver health messages to this country as long as people will listen," he promised.
In 1996, he rapped Republican hopeful Bob Dole for suggesting that tobacco is not invariably addictive, saying Dole's comments "either exposed his abysmal lack of knowledge of nicotine addiction or his blind support of the tobacco industry."
Although he eventually won wide respect with his blend of old-fashioned values, pragmatism and empathy, Koop's nomination in 1981 met a wall of opposition from women's groups and liberal politicians.
Critics said President Reagan selected Koop, a pediatric surgeon from Philadelphia, only because of his conservative views – especially his staunch opposition to abortion.
Foes noted that Koop traveled the country in 1979 and 1980 giving speeches that predicted a progression "from liberalized abortion to infanticide to passive euthanasia to active euthanasia, indeed to the very beginnings of the political climate that led to Auschwitz, Dachau and Belsen."
But Koop, a devout Presbyterian, was confirmed after he told a Senate panel he would not use the surgeon general's post to promote his religious ideology. He kept his word.
In 1986, he issued a frank report on AIDS, urging the use of condoms for "safe sex" and advocating sex education as early as third grade.
He also maneuvered around uncooperative Reagan administration officials in 1988 to send an educational AIDS pamphlet to more than 100 million U.S. households – the largest public health mailing ever done.
Koop personally opposed homosexuality and believed sex should be saved for marriage. But he insisted that Americans, especially young people, must not die because they were deprived of explicit information about how the HIV virus was transmitted.
He became a hero to AIDS activists, who chanted "Koop, Koop" at his appearances but booed other members of the administration.
Koop further angered conservatives by refusing to issue a report requested by the Reagan White House, saying he could not find enough scientific evidence to determine whether abortion has harmful psychological effects on women.
Koop maintained his personal opposition to abortion, however. After he left office, he told medical students it violated their Hippocratic oath. In 2009, he wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging that health care legislation include a provision to ensure doctors and medical students would not be forced to perform abortions. The letter briefly set off a security scare because it was hand delivered.
He served as chairman of the National Safe Kids Campaign and as an adviser to President Bill Clinton's health care reform plan.
At a congressional hearing in 2007, Koop spoke about political pressure on the surgeon general post. He said Reagan was pressed to fire him every day, but Reagan would not interfere.
Worried that medicine had lost old-fashioned caring and personal relationships between doctors and patients, Koop opened an institute at Dartmouth to teach medical students basic values and ethics.
He also was a part-owner of a short-lived venture, drkoop.com, to provide consumer health care information via the Internet. It made its initial public offering of stock in 1999, but expenses outstripped revenue and it was out of business by the end of 2001.
In July 2001, the company agreed to pay $4.25 million in cash to settle lawsuits filed by investors who claimed drkoop.com made false promises. Company officials did not admit wrongdoing.
Koop was born in New York's borough of Brooklyn, the only son of a Manhattan banker and the nephew of a doctor. He said by age 5, he knew he wanted to be a surgeon, and at age 13, he practiced his skills on neighborhood cats.
He attended Dartmouth College, where he received nickname "Chick," short for "chicken Koop." It stuck for life.
He received his medical degree at Cornell Medical College, choosing pediatric surgery because so few surgeons practiced it.
In 1938, Koop married Elizabeth Flanagan, the daughter of a Connecticut doctor. They had four children – Allen, Norman, David and Elizabeth. David, their youngest son, was killed in a mountain-climbing accident when he was 20.
Koop was appointed surgeon-in-chief at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and he also served as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
He pioneered surgery on newborns and successfully separated three sets of conjoined twins. He won national acclaim by reconstructing the chest of a baby born with the heart outside the body.
Although raised as a Baptist, he was drawn to a Presbyterian church near the hospital, where he developed an abiding faith. He began praying at the bedside of his young patients – ignoring the snickers of some of his colleagues.
"It used to be said in World War II that there were no atheists in foxholes," he wrote in 1973. "I have found there are very few atheists among the parents of dying children.
"This is a time when religious faith can see a family through trying circumstances."
- Sad. He was a class act. I was always impressed with his work on HIV/AIDS.
- He was the only one in the Reagan Administration who acknowledged AIDS and railed at the decrepit Reagan and his asshole band of cronies to do something about it. They actually told him to shut up, but he told them AIDS was a matter of national importance and he wasn't going to shut up. I'll always respect him for that.
- RIP Dr. Koop. The man managed to find himself on the NRA's enemies list.
- This idiot did nothing to stop the genital mutilation of boys and in fact basically supported it at one point when he was Surgeon-General. He was terrible. No big loss.
- But Koop, a devout Presbyterian, was confirmed after he told a Senate panel he would not use the surgeon general's post to promote his religious ideology. He kept his word.
How old-fashioned of him. You won't find this sort of an ethic today.
- Back to your sandbox, R5.
- Do you prefer Goop.com or drkoop.com?
- he didn't smoke, and lived to be 96.
- [quote]An evangelical Christian, . . . . a devout Presbyterian
Since when are Presbyterians considered evangelicals?
- As surgeon general, did he know all the health secrets to make it to 96?
- I worked a bit with Dr. Koop in recent years -- escort him around. I live in Philadelphia and he is legend here. Everywhere we'd go, people would go up -- many saying he operated on them (at Children's Hospital of Phila).
He told me he had performed over 100,000 hernia surgeries (I suppose very common with infant boys)
I respected that he was a conservative who nonetheless had to keep his personal opinions out of his professional obligations. It's easy for a progressive to be progressive, but he was a diehard republican and very conservative religiously.
He told me two issues led him to retire: smoking and AIDS. He was so disgusted by the tobacco lobby. Indeed, when we were out and about, people would go up to him and remark how he helped them quit, or they would admit they still smoked.
He was very compassionate and would stop everything to talk to them. He'd put his hands on their shoulder and share his sympathy and offer encouragement.
As far as AIDS, he sent out a booklet to all US homes w/o approval. The 2nd printing however, the word "anal" was removed and he was livid.
He was very frustrated that AIDS wasn't allowed to be discussed and considered it a conflict to his medical oath. He personally objected to a lot of behaviors that were resulting in AIDS, but he said he had to advocate for clean needles, safe sex (outside marriage!) because human lives were at stake.
So he apparently kept saying "AIDS" at meetings, etc and the president's staff just kept him away.
He told me this great story: he and Pres Reagan were wallking down the hall for something and a fire alarm went off. The Secret Service shoved Dr. Koop and Reagan into a closet (appropriate metaphor for Reagan). Koop said there was only room for them to face each other. They both were tall, so they were eyeball-to-eyeball.
Dr. Koop told me he said, "Mr. President, I need to speak with you about AIDS..."
he said they were only in there a minute so he just got out that it was an epidemic that had to be addressed and all citizens needed to know as much as possible. Reagan said nothing and was swooped away.
Sorry to be longwinded -- he told me a lot of great stories. But like I said, I respected that he had to go against his personal beliefs (abortion too). He considered himself a public health servant.
I will say he joked about being a republican and did collect elephannts, but his compassion and advocacy he showe4d smokers and people with AIDS was admirable.
- Koop and Joycelyn Elders - the two most intelligent Surgeons General the country has ever had.
- Great story, r12.
- Thanks for the great anecdotes, R12.