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Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop Leaves Legacy on AIDS, Smoking

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop died on Monday at the age of 96. Photo by AFP/Getty.

On Monday afternoon, Dr. Charles Everett Koop, the former surgeon general who delivered straightforward talks on AIDS and smoking, passed away in his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 96 years old.

The NewsHour interviewed Koop in 1989 on the anniversary of the first surgeon general’s report on smoking. You can view that video here:

Koop was a pediatric surgeon by training, first serving as surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from 1946 to 1981, when he was appointed surgeon general by President Ronald Reagan. His signature Amish-style beard, bow ties and braided white uniform made him an instantly recognizable figure. He is credited for using the office as a bully pulpit to enforce action on public health issues.

In the mid-80s when the AIDS epidemic was gaining national attention, he released a report in 1986 informing the public that the virus could not be transferred through casual contact, but through sex, sharing needles or contact with contaminated blood.

An evangelical Christian with a conservative track record, he shocked right-wing supporters when he publicly endorsed the use of condoms and sex education to slow the spread of AIDS. He mailed a pamphlet with information on AIDS to 100 million homes in 1988, and encouraged sex education for children as young as the third grade.

A former pipe-smoker, Koop also took a firm anti-smoking stance, launching public anti-smoking campaigns. In a 1986 report, he stated that nicotine was as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and warned against the dangers of secondhand smoke.

While he was personally opposed to abortion, Koop angered pro-life supporters during his tenure by declining to issue a report saying that abortion caused long term health risks for women when performed properly.

Even after leaving office in 1989, Koop continued to advocate for better health care practices, such as preventing children’s accidents and improving education for doctors.

“I will use the written word, the spoken word and whatever I can in the electronic media to deliver health messages to this country as long as people will listen,” he said.

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