Throughout his term, turbulent as it was, he shouldered quarrelsome health issues that might have been shunned by a less bold doctor, bringing them to the arena of public discourse.
Appointed by the President and called “America’s Doctor,” the Surgeon General’s chief task is to protect and advance the health of the nation. Most of our Surgeon Generals have tiptoed around hot-button public health issues that might bruise political sensibilities and their own careers.
C. Everett Koop, MD—known to many as “Koop”—was a Surgeon General who, irrespective of politics, fought the good fight for the health of all Americans, and in the process became a household name. He died on February 25, 2013, at 96.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1916, he was the only child of German immigrants whose family ethos was rooted in hard work and dedication. Dr. Koop excelled throughout school, earning his MD from Cornell Medical College in 1941. A colorful figure, the eccentrically bearded, straight-backed doctor looked like he could man the helm of a tall ship. But it was with our most delicate patients that Dr. Koop began leaving his mark on medicine. In 1946, Dr. Koop became the Surgeon-in-Chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he established the country’s first neonatal surgical intensive care unit in 1956.
His practice-changing innovations in pediatric surgery improved and saved the lives of countless children. In 1971, Dr. Koop became Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia where he performed surgery in uncharted medical territory; he invented techniques that he used to separate conjoined twins who otherwise might have died. He also developed anesthetic practices for small bodies and metabolisms.
In 1957, Dr. Koop performed the then near impossible separation of two female babies conjoined at the pelvis, which garnered him international recognition. A doctor’s doctor, he was unfazed by the gathering public attention that would help shape his illustrious career. Years later, in 1974, Dr. Koop once again performed an astounding surgical feat. He successfully separated twins conjoined at the spine. They shared a liver, colon, and parts of the intestines; their entire trunks were merged.
Dr. Koop published prodigiously in the literature, expressing concern that critical medical knowledge wasn’t being actively shared. “Each day of those early years in pediatric surgery I felt I was on the cutting edge,” he wrote. “Some of the procedures that landed on the operating table at Children’s had not even been named. I was troubled by fears that someone might have performed a certain procedure successfully but hadn’t bother to write it up.” A man of action, Dr. Koop addressed those fears by becoming the first Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery when it was founded in 1996.
Tenure as Surgeon General
In 1976, Dr. Koop, an unabashed conservative, expressed his concerns about abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide in a book titled, The Right to Live, The Right to Die. In 1981, Dr. Koop was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health by the newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan. Liberal politicians and women’s groups drew a line in the sand as it became clear that Dr. Koop would be President Reagan’s nominee for Surgeon General. Amidst protests, President Reagan appointed Dr. Koop as the U.S. Surgeon General; the Senate confirmed his nomination by a vote of 60 to 24. He was sworn into office on January 21, 1982.
Dr. Koop served as Surgeon General from 1982 to 1989, a 7-year term marked by contentious public health issues that Dr. Koop dealt with in his inimitable style—most notably, his stance on abortion and the emerging AIDS pandemic. He opposed abortion, but he was a free-thinker, and when he refused to be pressured into preparing a report stating that abortion was psychologically harmful to women, it brought a heated reaction from some in the Reagan administration.
Conservatives also took exception to his call to have frank discussions about sexual practices and his advocacy for expanding the use of condoms to combat the spread of AIDS. Throughout his term, turbulent as it was, he shouldered quarrelsome health issues that might have been shunned by a less bold doctor, bringing them to the arena of public discourse.
Dr. Koop’s long life was not without personal tragedy. His son David was killed in a rock-climbing fall during his junior year at Dartmouth College. Years later, he and his wife Elizabeth discussed their terrible loss in a book titled, Sometimes Mountains Move. Dr. Koop said the book was a humble attempt to help others who had lost a child.
Hearing of Dr. Koop’s death, American Medical Association President Jerry Lazarus noted, “Because of what he did, and the way he did it, he had a dramatic impact on public health.”
Koop, America’s Doctor, will be sadly missed. ■