Blinkhorn: Remembering Koop

Print More

(Host) The death in Hanover last week of Everett Koop reminded writer
and commentator Tom Blinkhorn of a series of interviews he had with the
late Surgeon General of the United States, one of the nation’s leading
pediatric surgeons.

(Blinkhorn) When Everett Koop turned 90 six
years ago, I asked to interview him about his extraordinary life. Much
to my surprise, he agreed and invited me to his office on the Dartmouth
campus. He graduated from the college in 1937 and played football for a
time. His teammates nicknamed him "chicken coop", later shortened to

When I arrived at his office, he was sitting in a chair
near his desk, a large, somber looking man with a bushy gray beard, no
mustache, trim suit and trademark red bow tie. From his photos, I had
expected a no-nonsense, possibly cool, reception so I prepared to break
any ice as quickly as possible. I mentioned that we had at least one
thing in common.

"What’s that?" he responded in a low growl. "I
grew up in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I understand you may have a
special affection for that part of Canada."

It worked. A smile
erupted and he launched into a long story about how, growing up in
Brooklyn, his maternal grandfather would take him on summer vacations to
Nova Scotia, a singing tour as he called it. They visited lighthouses,
traveling by horse and buggy along the shores. The grandfather, a story
teller and musician with a five string banjo and a concertina,
entertained the keeper, his family and anyone else nearby. Koop said
they were some of the happiest days of his life.

Canada also
figured in another Koop story. This one involved his public
anti-cigarette smoking campaign after he had become Surgeon General in
the Reagan administration in the 1980s. In those days, there were
no-smoking sections on airplanes, which Koop regarded as a farce since
smoke drifted easily around the cabin. He was certain that non-smoking
flight attendants and passengers were effectively smoking the equivalent
of several cigarettes a day, whether they wanted to or not.

had a plan to test the saliva and urine of volunteers and the flight
crew before, during and after long flights to see if they were absorbing
nicotine. He had no trouble finding volunteers but United States
airline companies wouldn’t agree to the tests. So Koop prevailed on an
old friend, the Canadian Minister of Health, to persuade Air Canada to
do the tests on flights from Montreal to Vancouver. The tests worked,
showing that non-smokers on planes with smoking sections were inhaling
significant smoke and nicotine. That was the ammunition needed to help
persuade Congress to start banning smoking on planes.

launched other important public health campaigns including pushing the
government into taking a more aggressive stand against HIV AIDS at a
time when there was little treatment for the infection.

At one
of our meetings, I complimented him on his red bow tie. He said it was a
90 th birthday gift from his staff, designed with help from a Vermont
company in Montpelier – red with blue stripes, tiny stars and a medical
symbol. He sent me one of the regular versions. I plan to wear it at his
memorial service in Woodstock this Saturday.

Comments are closed.