C. Everett Koop’s recent passing reminds us what it means for a public official to put America’s health over ideology. Koop served as Surgeon General of the United States from 1981-1989, appointed by President Reagan. He was a practicing physician who conducting groundbreaking surgeries on babies with birth defects, when he was appointed by Reagan to the post.
Koop’s evangelical upbringing and strong opposition to abortion evoked fear among women’s groups that he would use his post to preach against abortion. He determined early on in his tenure that since abortion wasn’t threatening the health of women, he wouldn’t spend the Surgeon General’s resources on the issue.
Instead Koop, who the New York Times calls “the most influential surgeon general in American history,” devoted his energies to fighting smoking in the United States and raising awareness about AIDS and HIV prevention. He warned about the consequences of smoking, noting that 300,000 people every year at the time were dying from smoking.
Several senators from tobacco states wanted him ousted from the job. He was unfazed, and his campaign was effective: When he came to the SG job, 33 percent of Americans smoked. Nine years later, the percentage had dropped to 26. By 1987, 40 states were restricting smoking in public places and 17 banned it inside workplaces and offices.
Koop also prepared the first extensive report on AIDS and HIV infection during the early years of the disease’s emergence. He resisted demands from conservatives to remove the recommendations that people use condoms if they weren’t practicing abstinence or monogamy. “Too many people place conservative ideology far above saving human lives.”
He lived a long life and happy life, marrying for the second time at age 93. We owe C. Everett Koop a debt of gratitude for his brave crusades against smoking and AIDS. Americans should remember him as one of the great public health pioneers and a truly outstanding Surgeon General.