If you walked down the street offering $5 to any passerby who could name the present U.S. surgeon general, chances are that you'd probably end up keeping your money and buying a Starbucks venti latte. But Dr. C. Everett Koop, who died on Feb. 25 at age 96 in New Hampshire, never had that problem in serving as President Reagan's surgeon general from 1981 to 1989.
Maybe it was the flamboyant chin beard, the one that made Koop look like an Abraham Lincoln impersonator gone gray, or how distinctive he looked in a white short-sleeve uniform shirt and epaulets. As surgeon generals go, Koop was straight out of central casting. But at the same time, he carried himself with the dignity befitting a renowned pediatric surgeon who'd twice performed groundbreaking procedures to separate conjoined twins, and he wasn't afraid to use his air of gravitas to champion controversial positions and to push back against the intrusion of politics into medical ethics.
Indeed, Koop will be remembered not just for his colorful persona, but for the tough, principled stands that he took on important issues, both during and after his time in government. Here are five of them:
- In 1986, Koop issued a landmark report that offered the first official government warning that secondhand cigarette smoke was linked to cancer in nonsmokers. He was among the first to call for bans on smoking in the workplace and public spaces, which today have become standard.
- Koop shocked his fellow religious conservatives in 1987 by touting safe sex to fight the AIDS epidemic. He testified to Congress that the public health threat from the disease was so great that television networks should drop their resistance to airing commercials for condoms. Eventually, as the result of his efforts, CBS, NBC and ABC finally agreed in 1988 to run an ad campaign promoting condoms as a protection against contracting HIV.
- Koop also advocated sex education for children "at the lowest grade possible" as another essential measure for slowing the spread of HIV.
- Though personally opposed to abortion, Koop resisted intense pressure to issue a report saying that the procedure was harmful to women's health. Instead, in 1989, he sent a letter to the White House in which he stuck to his principled position that there wasn't adequate, unbiased scientific data available to draw such as conclusion.
- In 1989, Koop took the forefront in a physicians' campaign to combat physical abuse of women. "In this country, no man has a license to beat, and to get away with it," he proclaimed. "And no woman is obliged to accept a beating, and suffer because of it." Koop also tried to raise awareness of abuse of the elderly.
Here's a 2010 interview in which Koop talks about his battle to overcome political inertia and fight the AIDs epidemic.
Photo (Koop in 1995): Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images