Dr. C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general who helped start the national conversation on AIDS in the 1980s, passed away at his New Hampshire home on Monday.
He was 96.
Koop served under Ronald Reagan, a president many blame for not addressing the deadly epidemic fast enough. But the Brooklyn-born surgeon helped the public see AIDS as more than just a “gay disease.” “He really changed the national conversation,” said amfAR’s Chris Collins, “and he showed real courage in pursuing the duties of his job.”
Koop’s 1986 report, released five years after the first AIDS cases were reported, didn’t mince words:
His report, released later that year, stressed that AIDS was a threat to all Americans and called for wider use of condoms and more comprehensive sex education, as early as the third grade. He went on to speak frankly about AIDS in an HBO special and engineered the mailing of an educational pamphlet on AIDS to more than 100 million U.S. households in 1988.
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 HIV was transmitted.
Koop’s speeches and empathetic approach made him a hero to a wide swath of America, including public health workers, gay activists and journalists. Some called him a “scientific Bruce Springsteen.” AIDS activists chanted “Koop, Koop” at his appearances and booed other officials.
“I was walking down the street with him one time” about five years ago, recalled Dr. George Wohlreich, director of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a medical society with which Koop had longstanding ties. “People were yelling out, ‘There goes Dr. Koop!’ You’d have thought he was a rock star.”
In addition to educating the public about AIDS and HIV, Koop will be remembered for elevating the office of the Surgeon General, and for putting science before politics—even his own. (Staunchly pro-life in his personal life, he outraged right-wingers by saying he couldn’t find proof that abortions caused psychological harm to women.) In addition, Koop’s anti-tobacco campaigns saw smoking rates decline from 38% to 27% while he was in office.
Rest in peace, Dr. Koop.