Former surgeon general Dr. C. Everett Koop, 96, long regarded as America’s doctor, passed away Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H.
By far the best known and most influential person to carry the title of surgeon general, Koop, a 6-foot-1 evangelical Presbyterian with a beard of biblical proportions, donned a public health uniform in the early 1980s and became a longstanding, science-based national spokesman on health issues.
Koop served in the Reagan administration for eight years and was considered an independent voice among his political bosses. He took on tobacco companies during a multiyear campaign to reduce smoking rates, was an outspoken opponent of abortion, and became the government’s spokesman on the dangers of AIDS and how it spreads.
Though Koop personally opposed homosexuality and believed sex should be saved for marriage, he insisted that Americans, especially young people, must not die because they were deprived of explicit information about the transmission of HIV.
"He really changed the national conversation, and he showed real courage in pursuing the duties of his job," said Chris Collins, a vice president of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.
Koop's speeches and compassionate approach made him a hero to a wide array of American, including public health workers, homosexual activists, and journalists. Some referred to him as a "scientific Bruce Springsteen." AIDS activists chanted "Koop, Koop" at his appearances and booed other officials.
Dr. George Wohlreich, director of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a medical society with which Koop had longstanding ties, recalled walking down the street with Koop about five years ago.
"People were yelling out, 'There goes Dr. Koop!' You'd have thought he was a rock star," Wohlreich said.
But Koop’s public role did not thrust him into the limelight for the first time. Prior to holding the surgeon general post, he was a leading figure in medicine, known as one of the first U.S. doctors to specialize in pediatric surgery. At that time, doctors often dismissed children with complicated conditions as untreatable.
In the 1950s, Koop drew national attention for groundbreaking surgeries, including separating conjoined twins. He was known to pray at the bedside of his young patients, despite the snickers of his colleagues.
"He set the bar high for all who followed in his footsteps," said Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as surgeon general a decade later under President George W. Bush.