A giant among us died last week: Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. He was 96.
Koop had a distinguished career as a pediatric surgeon. He was Surgeon-in-Chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) from 1946-1981. [Imagine doing anything that long or consistently.] He’s said to have performed seventeen thousand hernia repairs. His trainees and former fellows have gone on to lead departments elsewhere, all over the world, meaning his influence will live on in the world of surgery.
Most of us would be lucky to have one meaningful career. But Koop had a second act. He became Surgeon General in 1982, after a contentious confirmation battle. [Where have I heard that before?] He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and the Democratic-led Senate was opposed to him because of his conservative Presbyterian views and writings. The New York Times labelled him “Dr. Unqualified” in an editorial.
But Koop won over many senators, convincing them of his integrity, and won confirmation by a vote of 68-24.
Over his tenure as Surgeon General, he completely surprised his allies and opponents, alienating the former and winning over the latter with his commitment to science. In seven and a half years, he brought HIV testing and awareness into the mainstream, putting aside moral qualms about homosexuality to advocate for testing and condom use.
He railed against tobacco, declaring forthrightly that secondhand smoke harms health. Perhaps most shockingly, he refused to acquiesce to his political overlords and declare abortion medically harmful. He was certainly no fan of the practice, but the evidence of harm was at best inconclusive. He felt that personal, moral choices should not hold sway over science.
Koop had many admirers in the media, for his rejuvenation of the oft-ignored post of Surgeon General. He brought back the Vice Admiral uniform worn by the director of the Public Health Service, and used his bully pulpit to great effect in advancing the health and knowledge of the public.
Dr. Koop had the courage to speak truth to power, consequences be damned.
A couple of items worth noting: In an unusual move, the Times obituary contained a self-referential fact: Apparently, Koop was interviewed for his obituary in 1996, a full seventeen years before his actual demise. Wow.
And, as if presaging his death, the Times carried an opinion piece by Mark Bittman just five days before Koop’s death. The title? “Our M.I.A Surgeon General.” In it, Bittman laments that current Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is not making adequate use of her bully pulpit on current public health issues like childhood obesity.