Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY
C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general who brought frank talk about AIDS into U.S. homes, has died at his home in Hanover, N.H., officials at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth said Monday. He was 96.
Koop, a pediatric surgeon with a conservative reputation and a distinctive beard, served from 1982 to 1989 during the Reagan administration and the early months of the administration of George H.W. Bush.
"He was a historic figure," who became surgeon general the year the AIDS pandemic began and played a pivotal role in educating Americans about it, says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
"Dr. Koop will be remembered for his colossal contributions to the health and well-being of patients and communities in the U.S. and around the world," said a statement released by Chip Souba, dean of the Geisel School of Medicine and Joseph O'Donnell, senior scholar at the C. Everett Koop Institute. "As one of our country's greatest surgeons general, he effectively promoted health and the prevention of disease, thereby improving millions of lives in our nation and across the globe."
Koop may best remembered for his official 1986 report on AIDS - a plain-spoken 36-page document that talked about the way AIDS spread (through sex, needles and blood), the ways it did not spread (through casual contact in homes, schools and workplaces) and how people could protect themselves.
The report advocated condom use for the sexually active and sex education for schoolchildren, pleasantly surprising liberals and upsetting many of Koop's former supporters. An eight-page version was mailed to every American household in 1988.
The brochure came in a sealed packet with the warning that "some of the issues involved in this brochure may not be things you are used to discussing openly."
In interviews and speeches, Koop always stressed that sexual abstinence and monogamy were the best protection against AIDS, but that medical experts had a duty to tell people who did not choose those paths how they could stay healthy.
"My position on AIDS was dictated by scientific integrity and Christian compassion," Koop wrote in his 1991 biography, Koop: The Memoirs of America's Family Doctor.
Koop also made his mark in the fight against smoking, with another 1986 report that alerted the public to the dangers of second-hand smoke - setting the stage for today's widespread prohibitions against smoking in public places.
At one point, Koop was the second-most recognized public official in the United States, after President Reagan, says Alexandra Lord, a former Public Health Service historian and author of Condom Nation: The US Government's Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet. He was one of the most high-profile surgeons general, before or since, she says -- though she says people under age 35 or so may not know his name today.
In his time, "Koop was very effective," so much so that he made some subsequent administrations "very nervous" about the potential power of the men and women occupying the office, Lord says.
Charles Everett Koop was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 14, 1916. He briefly played football at Dartmouth College, where he acquired his lifelong nickname "Chick," according to a biography posted online by the National Library of Medicine. An early fascination with medicine eventually led him to Cornell University Medical College. In 1945, he became first surgeon in chief at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, a position he held until his appointment as surgeon general.
His nomination for that position was opposed by groups who feared he would use the office to promote his anti-abortion views - which he said were developed during a career saving newborns with life-threatening birth defects. But Koop avoided pronouncements on abortion during his tenure.
After he left office, he became one of the first high-profile doctors to establish a presence online. His website, DrKoop.com, was launched in 1997 and was intended to provide reliable health information to the public, he said. But Koop and his backers faced criticism over ties with companies advertising on the site. Like many Internet efforts of the era, it failed, going bankrupt in 2001.
Koop remained active, though, heading his C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth in New Hampshire. At a news conference in Washington, D.C., in 2010, when he was 94, he spoke from a wheelchair and told reporters that he was "very, very deaf" and legally blind, the Washington Post reported.
But he still had the strength to warn that AIDS was becoming a "forgotten epidemic." Although 56,000 Americans were still getting infected each year, "simply put, HIV is no longer on the public's radar screen," he said.
At a time when AIDS was new, though, and the nation needed someone to give it the facts straight up, Koop filled the bill, says Woodie Kessel, a former assistant surgeon general who was a longtime friend and a Koop Institute fellow.
"Every time there's a new threat to our well-being, it takes somebody to calm our fears... He worked to address those fears with facts, with science and with great compassion."
Fauci, who also became friends with Koop and worked with him on his AIDS report, says: "He was an amazing champion of treating it as a disease, not as a stigma. He understood it was a public health disaster in the making. ... I remember he would say, 'Tony, you do the science, I'll do the education for the public.'"
Contributing: Liz Szabo