Mention the term “surgeon general” to anyone over 35 or so and they won’t think of the doctor who currently holds that position (that’s Regina Benjamin, who some have felt has not spoken or acted forcefully enough about threats to our nation’s health). Nor will they think of the surgeon general who released the famous 1964 report linking smoking with lung cancer and whose warning appears on every pack of cigarettes. (That was Luther L. Terry). Rather, they’ll think of C. Everett Koop, who held the office from 1981 to 1989 and who died this week at 96.
Why was Koop so memorable?
Part of it was his distinctive appearance and colorful personality. He gave press conferences in full military dress and bushy chin whiskers, looking like a 19th century sea captain.
Most of it was that he took his role as “the nation’s doctor” seriously, in ways that would seem impossible today.
As New Yorker science writer Michael Specter points out in this remembrance, Koop was a religious and political conservative who, for the most part, managed to distinguish his own personal beliefs from scientific data. He opposed homosexuality, but advocated for AIDS prevention. He opposed abortion, but refused to release a study on the psychologically harmful effects of abortion on women that he found scientifically weak. If the term “nanny state” had been coined when Koop, a Reagan appointee, advocated aggressive anti-smoking legislation, it surely would have been applied to him.
Somehow, C. Everett Koop did what we are currently failing to do–about contraception, gun violence, food safety, obesity, and many other issues: give government a strong, effective, scientifically-based, non-partisan voice in matters of public health.
We need a new nation’s doctor.
Suzanne Koven is an internal medicine physician who blogs at In Practice at Boston.com, where this article originally appeared. She is the author of Say Hello To A Better Body: Weight Loss and Fitness For Women Over 50.