When former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop died last week at age 96 in
Hanover, Vermont Business Magazine editor and commentator Timothy
McQuiston was reminded of an interview he had with Koop 19 years ago.
Koop was living in Vermont at the time and had just started working at
(McQuiston) When I heard the news of his death, the
first thing I thought of was how he talked about his own living will at
some length – and stressed the importance of planning for one’s
end-of-life circumstances. His daughter, he said, would make the
appropriate decisions when the time came. The time came last week and I
wondered what, if any, decisions his daughter had made.
second thing I thought of was why he was famous in the first place.
Certainly being named Surgeon General of the United States doesn’t make
one famous. Can you name the current one – or any one, for that matter?
had a Quaker Oats beard and his first name was Charles, though I doubt
very much anyone ever called him Charlie, or The Chuckster – and he
became famous because of AIDS.
Koop was surgeon general during
the Reagan Administration in the ‘80s, when AIDS became a national
calamity. At first it was a mysterious disease that plagued certain
demographic groups. HIV was discovered to be its incurable cause. But
because it most profoundly struck gay men, it also quickly became a
The administration took a laissez faire
attitude toward AIDS, thus giving some ugly Americans the cover to say
things like, "They got what they deserved." Never mind who "they" were
or that diligence was not paid to the blood supply, causing the disease
to spread further.
This was truly a bad time.
picked by President Reagan because he was a conservative, notably on
abortion. But as a medical professional he was conservative in the
classic sense. He was a doctor first.
Koop recognized that AIDS
was not a political or social issue; it was a severe health care problem
of epidemic proportions that had to be dealt with immediately – and
that blunt action was needed.
Perhaps Koop wasn’t the first
government official to use the word "condom" in public, but his public
stance in television commercials and other media made the term "safe
sex" part of our American lexicon.
He recognized the public
health disaster that was AIDS. He stood up for his principles as a
physician. He was vilified by some and scolded by others, but he forged
ahead. He never retreated from his stance that the first thing that had
to be done was to slow down the spread of a disease that not only was
incurable, but for which at the time there was not even a treatment
Doctors need to be direct. Sometimes they tell you
you’re going to die; sometimes they save your life. That’s their job.
Koop saved untold numbers of lives, but he didn’t think of it that way.
When I interviewed him in a small room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, he didn’t
talk much about AIDS or the politics of the 1980s. He was a
conservative doctor. He wanted to talk about the role of the health care
provider and the responsibility of the individual.