NEW YORK (AP) — Dr. C. Everett Koop has long been regarded as the nation’s doctor— even though it has been nearly a quarter-century since he was surgeon general.
Koop, who died Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H., at age 96, was by far the best known and most influential person to carry that title. Koop, a 6-foot-1 evangelical Presbyterian with a biblical prophet’s beard, donned a public health uniform in the early 1980s and became an enduring, science-based national spokesman on health issues.
He served for eight years during the Reagan administration and was a breed apart from his political bosses. He thundered about the evils of tobacco companies during a multiyear campaign to drive down smoking rates, and he became the government’s spokesman on AIDS when it was still considered a “gay disease” by much of the public.
“He really changed the national conversation, and he showed real courage in pursuing the duties of his job,” said Chris Collins, a vice president of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.
Even before that, he had been a leading figure in medicine. He was one of the first U.S. doctors to specialize in pediatric surgery at a time when children with complicated conditions were often simply written off as untreatable. In the 1950s, he drew national headlines for innovative surgeries such as separating conjoined twins.
His medical heroics are well noted, but he may be better remembered for transforming from a pariah in the eyes of the public health community into a remarkable servant who elevated the influence of the surgeon general — if only temporarily.
“He set the bar high for all who followed in his footsteps,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as surgeon general a decade later under President George W. Bush.