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In Memoriam

C. Everett Koop, ex-surgeon general who spoke out on AIDS, dies

Monday, February 25, 2013
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HANOVER, N.H. — C. Everett Koop, who raised the profile of the surgeon general by riveting America’s attention on the then-emerging disease known as AIDS and by railing against smoking, has died in New Hampshire at age 96.

An assistant at Koop’s Dartmouth institute, Susan Wills, said he died Monday in Hanover, where he had a home. She didn’t disclose his cause of death.

C. Everett Koop
File photo by Jim Cole, AP

Koop wielded the previously low-profile post of surgeon general as a bully pulpit for seven years during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

An evangelical Christian, he shocked his conservative supporters when he endorsed condoms and sex education to stop the spread of AIDS.

He carried out a crusade to end smoking in the United States — his goal had been to do so by 2000. A former pipe smoker, he said cigarettes were as addictive as heroin and cocaine.

Koop’s impact was great, although the surgeon general has no real authority to set government policy. He described himself as “the health conscience of the country.”

“My only influence was through moral suasion,” Koop said just before leaving office in 1989.

By then, his Amish-style silver beard and white, braided uniform were instantly recognizable.

Out of office, he switched to business suits and bow ties but continued to promote public health causes, from preventing childhood accidents to better training for doctors.

“I will use the written word, the spoken word and whatever I can in the electronic media to deliver health messages to this country as long as people will listen,” he promised.

In 1986, Koop issued a frank report on AIDS, urging the use of condoms for “safe sex” and advocating sex education as early as third grade.

He also maneuvered around uncooperative Reagan administration officials in 1988 to send an educational AIDS pamphlet to more than 100 million U.S. households, the largest public health mailing ever done.

Koop personally opposed homosexuality and believed sex should be saved for marriage. But he insisted that Americans, especially young people, must not die because they were deprived of explicit information about how the HIV virus was transmitted.

He became a hero to AIDS activists, who chanted “Koop, Koop” at his appearances but booed other officials.

Koop was born in New York’s borough of Brooklyn, the only son of a Manhattan banker and the nephew of a doctor. He said by age 5 he knew he wanted to be a surgeon and at age 13 he practiced his skills on neighborhood cats.

He attended Dartmouth College, where he received the nickname Chick, short for “chicken Koop.” It stuck for life.

He received his medical degree at Cornell Medical College, choosing pediatric surgery because so few surgeons practiced it.

In 1938, Koop married Elizabeth Flanagan, the daughter of a Connecticut doctor. They had four children — Allen, Norman, David and Elizabeth. David, their youngest son, was killed in a mountain-climbing accident when he was 20.

Koop was appointed surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and he also served as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

He pioneered surgery on newborns and successfully separated three sets of conjoined twins. He won national acclaim by reconstructing the chest of a baby born with the heart outside the body.

Although raised as a Baptist, he was drawn to a Presbyterian church near the hospital, where he developed an abiding faith. He began praying at the bedside of his young patients — ignoring the snickers of some of his colleagues.

“It used to be said in World War II that there were no atheists in foxholes,” he wrote in 1973. “I have found there are very few atheists among the parents of dying children.

“This is a time when religious faith can see a family through trying circumstances.”

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