Would C. Everett Koop be an effective Surgeon General today?

Would C. Everett Koop be an effective Surgeon General today?

I have been thinking a lot about C. Everett Koop lately, ever since his death on February 25 at the ripe old age of 96 and more recently with the announcement that our current Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, is planning to step down from that post. In particular, I have been pondering what made Koop such an effective Surgeon General, and what has made it so hard for his successors to approach even a portion of his impact.

For starters, Koop was an immensely talented and driven man. His obituary in the New York Times describes him practicing tying knots before his 14th birthday, in anticipation of becoming a surgeon. That impressed me. When I was that age, I was busy tape recording my first 15 minutes of piano practicing so I could play it back, while escaping outside, in order to fulfill my 30 minutes of required practice time. Koop eventually became a world renowned surgeon and was named Surgeon General at the age of 65, meaning he brought a track record of accomplishments that few of his successors approached.

But it was not his prior accomplishments that made Koop such a great Surgeon General. Indeed, most of his successors were remarkably accomplished people in their own rights. Koop’s talents and compliments explain why he was chosen to be Surgeon General, but they don’t explain why he was so effective in the position.

Instead, he had a number of other very important personality traits that contributed to his success. Most importantly, he was a man of principle, driven by a sense of moral duty that more of us should live by. And he was not willing to bend his moral principles for political purposes, telling his wife before his confirmation hearings: “If I ever have to say anything I don’t believe or feel should be said, we’ll go home.”


But for as much as I admire his moral principles, this personality trait fails to fully explain his success. After all, his successor Joycelyn Elders had strong moral principles too, ones that convinced her to climb on the bully pulpit to challenge what we teach our kids about sex. For those of you who do not remember the story, the ending was quite telling – she was fired!

The reason Koop had so much impact is because the issues he confronted during his time as Surgeon General forced him to talk, as a respected conservative, about issues conservatives were not otherwise inclined to talk about. He was the medical equivalent of Nixon going to China. He could “go to HIV” or “take on tobacco” in ways that a democratically appointed “liberal” Surgeon General could not.

Appointed by Ronald Reagan in part because he was a well-known abortion opponent, Koop was the perfect man to talk about condom use to prevent HIV. His well-publicized views, and his turn-of-the-century appearance, gave him credibility among conservatives who were not otherwise inclined to take such views seriously.

I worry that a public figure like Koop could not thrive in today’s horrifically partisan environment. I rejoice that he served as when he did, and expect I am one of many thousands of people who still think about him, even though he is gone.

Peter Ubel is a physician and behavioral scientist who blogs at his self-titled site, Peter Ubel and can be reached on Twitter @PeterUbel.  He is the author of Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choices Together.

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  • mmer

    //I worry that a public figure like Koop could not thrive in today’s horrifically partisan environment//

    When one side of the political aisle believes that science is “liberal propaganda,” it is increasingly difficult to talk to the public about health issues in a straight-forward manner based upon science, evidence, and what is good for public health (cough::Michelle Bachmann and vaccines::cough)

    Here’s a real gem…

    “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big
    Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell,” Broun
    said. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught
    that from understanding that they need a savior.”

    Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA)

    Today, if Koop tried to take on tobacco, he would likely be called a communist or socialist. To try and tackle HIV today, he would probably be reamed for supporting an atheistic, morally deviant lifestyle.

    • adh1729

      I would like to remind you that communism and naz1-ism were awash in science during their heyday.
      “Science” supports Darwinism, and ends with the conclusion that we are merely animals: unique animals, yes, but not the only unique animals. Whales swim deeper, eagles see further, cheetahs run faster, and elephants are stronger and bigger. Human life is no more valuable than zebra life, according to “science”. Last I checked, there were no rallies for “justice” for the zebra, after a successful lion hunt.
      Tell me a scientific reason why rape, murder, and cannibalism are wrong. Darwin should applaud for survival of the fittest at work. Is mere science good enough, when I pass your daughter or sister in a dark alley? Is that all you want to leave the human race with?

  • DavidBehar

    This PC idiot allowed AIDS to be protected and to spread like wildfire. Meanwhile, little Cuba stops it cold. An embaraassment, andanabject failure, even in his time.

  • drll

    of course!

  • ninguem

    From your link to Jocelyn Elders (Wikipedia)

    In 1994, she was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS. She was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, and she replied, “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” This remark caused great controversy and resulted in Elders losing the support of the White House. White House chief of staff Leon Panetta remarked, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one
    too many.”

    I’d say he got that right.

    Bill Clinton did not believe in masturbation.

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