ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross calls him America’s greatest surgeon general — ever. C. Everett Koop, surgeon general from 1982 to 1989, and longtime friend of ACSH, passed away yesterday in Hanover, N.H., at the age of 96.
“He was in the forefront of transmitting science-based information about AIDS,” says Dr. Ross. “Nobody even talked about it officially before he did. For someone who came from a very conservative, traditional mindset — he said he was using Christian compassion to deal with the sick and potentially sick people, whatever their personal behaviors.”
Dr. Koop’s efforts to draw attention to the disease included sending a brochure to all 107 million American households at that time, 1988, “Understanding AIDS,” that provided specific information about how AIDS was transmitted — from blood products and intimate, sexual contact — and how it was not transmitted: from casual work or even household contact.
“Dr Koop was unique. He was able to set aside his religious and political beliefs and became the first public official to address the AIDS crisis. And he did so in a brutally honest way, despite harsh criticism from former ‘supporters,’ and the very sensitive nature of the topic at that time. There is no question that he saved thousands of lives by speaking out. This is the sign of a real leader,” says ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom. “It’s too bad that people with this sort of dedication and integrity are so rare in government.”
ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan says the first time she met Dr. Koop was for an interview for a magazine. She waited five minutes waiting in the lobby, and appeared to return to his papers when she sat down — only to look up and say, “That was a hell of a good book on smoking you wrote!”
ACSH trustee Dr. Robert Brent writes, “Since I have been at Jefferson in Philadelphia for almost 60 years and was chairman of Pediatrics for 30 years, Dr. Koop and I had many interactions. Yes he was conservative, but he was very fair and objective. We were on the phthalate committee of the NCSH and worked on the document together for two years. He was furious with the environmentalists who wanted to ban the phthalates before we had a ‘safe’ replacement because the soft plastic tubing was made possible by the phthalates. Koop frequently was upset by the fact that modern pediatric surgery could not be performed without soft plastic tubing. He would preach, ‘Try having a colonoscopy or dialysis without soft plastic tubing; or would you like a sigmoidoscopy with a steel tube?’”
Dr. Koop also kept the spotlight on the harm caused by smoking, comparing cigarettes’ addictiveness to that of heroin and cocaine. He released eight different reports on the health consequences of smoking, and improved the warning labels on cigarette packs.
ACSH advisor Judith Stern writes, “I knew Dr. Koop when I was an advisor to Shape Up America! He was a giant of a man in terms of his thoughts and his deeds. There is no one person who can take his place. It will take ‘a village.’ We certainly need one in the area of obesity.”
And ACSH advisor David Duncan, DrPH, says he actively lobbied against Dr. Koop’s nomination — “because he lacked either training or experience in public health and because of his past connections with the anti-choice movement. But he turned out to be an excellent Surgeon General. I had the pleasure of telling him so a few years later. He will be missed.”
Dr. Koop was a long-standing friend of ACSH and was with our founder and president, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, from the start. He appeared (with numerous other luminaries in public health) at ACSH’s 25th anniversary gala in December of 2003, and remained a valued resource for us until his final years.