C. Everett Koop, who died this week at the age of 96, was the most famous surgeon general this country has ever known, for a reason as relevant today as it was in the 1980s: He put science and public health above ideology. A renowned pediatric surgeon in Philadelphia, Koop came to the attention of the incoming Reagan administration because of his public stance against abortion. His nomination in 1981 was vigorously opposed by Senator Ted Kennedy, who said Koop’s personal politics perpetuated a “cruel, outdated and patronizing stereotype of women.” The Globe editorial board acridly condemned the nomination, contending that the “fanatical” Koop was a “dogmatic Christian fundamentalist with the kind of tunnel vision that limits bureaucrats of any ideological stripe.”
How wrong this appraisal was! Once in office, Koop defied the powerful tobacco lobby by linking second-hand smoke and cancer, sparking a national wave of smoking restrictions in offices, restaurants, public spaces, and transportation facilities. More courageous still was his declaration that abortions — which he once characterized as being on a slippery slope to the kind of dehumanization that had led to Auschwitz — were medically safe for women.