With his striking beard and starched uniform, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop became one of the most recognizable figures of the Reagan era — and one of the most unexpectedly enduring.
His nomination in 1981 met a wall of opposition from women’s groups and liberal politicians, who complained President Ronald Reagan selected Koop, a pediatric surgeon and evangelical Christian from Philadelphia, only because of his conservative views, especially his staunch opposition to abortion.
Soon, though, he was a hero to AIDS activists, who chanted “Koop, Koop” at his appearances but booed other officials. And when he left his post in 1989, he left behind a landscape where AIDS was a top research and educational priority, smoking was considered a public health hazard, and access to abortion remained largely intact.
Koop, who turned his once-obscure post into a bully pulpit for seven years during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and who surprised both ends of the political spectrum by setting aside his conservative personal views on issues such as homosexuality and abortion to keep his focus sharply medical, died Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 96.
An assistant at Koop’s Dartmouth College institute, Susan Wills, confirmed his death but didn’t disclose its cause.
Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as surgeon general a decade ago under President George W. Bush, said Koop was a mentor to him and preached the importance of staying true to the science even if it made politicians uncomfortable.
“He set the bar high for all who followed in his footsteps,” Carmona said.
Although the surgeon general has no real authority to set government policy, Koop described himself as “the health conscience of the country” and said modestly just before leaving his post that “my only influence was through moral suasion.”