When President Ronald Reagan named Dr. C. Everett Koop surgeon general in 1981, the pioneering pediatric surgeon appeared to have been picked mostly because of his conservative views and his strong, religiously inspired opposition to abortion. Liberals opposed his nomination and conservatives applauded it. Both groups ended up being surprised.
Although he never wavered in his anti-abortion sentiments, Dr. Koop, who died this week at age 96, was principled and pragmatic. He did not advance religious views; he did what scientific evidence demanded and public policy needed.
He became the best-known surgeon general the country has seen. He saw a bully pulpit where others had seen only an obscure government post.
He relished wearing the vice admiral’s uniform that traditionally came with the job but that his predecessors had shunned. His beard and striking presence made him seem like a cross between an Old Testament prophet and an avuncular family doctor.
His authority was anchored in strong beliefs, but his public-health enemies were formidable. Dr. Koop faced down the tobacco industry and the fear and denial that accompanied the AIDS epidemic.
Offending political interests or social prejudices was not his concern. He was not afraid to warn of the disastrous public-health consequences of smoking; when he left office, the number of American smokers was significantly down. He did not pull punches on AIDS either, scandalizing his critics by endorsing condoms and sex education as means to fight the epidemic.
The lives of millions of people, some not yet born, have been and will be saved because of Dr. Koop’s recommendations and influence. That is the greatest legacy that any advocate for public health could have.