Dr. C. Everett Koop, the nation's most influential surgeon general ever, died this week, leaving a grateful, better informed and healthier nation as his legacy.
Resplendent in the vice admiral uniform of his office, erect in bearing and resembling a biblical prophet with his fulsome beard, the pediatric surgeon became a household name in the 1980s. Koop will be best remembered for his campaign against smoking and for his forthright efforts to stem the newly emerging AIDS epidemic.
His anti-abortion views made him a target of the left when President Ronald Reagan nominated him for the surgeon general's post in 1981. But by the time Koop left office eight years later, he was one of the right wing's favorite targets.
Conservatives were disappointed that he refused to condemn abortion, an issue he considered to be religious and moral, not medical. He was also disliked by politicians from tobacco-growing states because of his aggressive and relentless opposition to smoking. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, the Republican from North Carolina, went so far as to try, unsuccessfully, to get Congress to investigate him.
But it was his controversial effort to combat HIV/AIDS that most distinguishes Koop. The disease was newly discovered when he took office and was seen initially as a deadly malady that affected primarily homosexuals. As the spread and fear of the disease mounted, at the behest of President Reagan, in 1986, Koop authored "The Surgeon General's Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome."
The report helped to dispel wild rumors. AIDS could not be contracted by casual contact like kissing or donating blood, Koop's report explained. It was not spread by mosquitoes. Significantly, in those early days of widespread panic, Koop also urged Americans not to stigmatize AIDS patients. "We are fighting a disease, not people," he wrote.
And while he emphasized that abstinence and monogamy were the best ways to fight AIDS, he also stated plainly that those unwilling to adhere to those practices "should use a latex condom for their protection and their partners." To the dismay of many on the Christian right in the fight against AIDS, Koop was also an ardent supporter of safe-sex education "at the lowest grade possible."
At a key point in history when America very much needed a doctor, not an ideologue, C. Everett Koop served the nation with courage, intelligence, compassion and integrity.