If asked to name a surgeon general recent or long past, most of us would come up with one name: Dr. C. Everett Koop. Perhaps that can be explained by the gold-braided, dark blue uniform he revived, or his distinctive, gray beard, or unmistakable, deep voice. Most likely, it stems from all that he made of the office, his integrity, courage, thoughtfulness and devotion to public health.
Dr. Koop died on Monday at age 96, and for most what lingers about his leadership as surgeon general during the 1980s is the difference he made in the country’s approach to smoking. He so effectively conveyed the hard information about the health threat, say, that smoking a pack of cigarettes a day takes six years off a person’s life.
His message triggered sweeping changes, the share of Americans who smoked dropping from one-third to one-quarter. His 1986 report on secondhand smoke triggered state, county and city ordinances restricting smoking. He didn’t flinch when confronting the influence of Big Tobacco.
Dr. Koop proved steady and determined when others resisted addressing the emerging AIDS epidemic. Again, he advanced good information, including the importance of condoms as protection. He arrived in office touted by many for his opposition to abortion. Yet he stuck with the facts, the evidence failing to show abortions are unsafe.
An extraordinary pediatric surgeon, Dr. Koop arrived late to public office. He stayed long enough to leave a memorable mark, setting the standard for how a surgeon general should perform.