The Nation's Doctor

Paul Greenberg

3/2/2013 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

The surgeon general of the United States needn't be a surgeon. And he may be a general -- or admiral -- only in name. The rank is essentially a civil office -- despite the dress whites and gold braid. Indeed, it was largely an honorary title before Ronald Reagan chose a physician by the name of C. Everett Koop for the appointment.

Dr. Koop, who died this week at the grand old age of 96, was indeed a surgeon and a fine one (his specialty was pediatric surgery at Children's in Philadelphia) and he soon became a household name. And a target of equal-but-opposite denunciations from both ends of the political spectrum.

The rabid right didn't like his crusade against AIDS -- he spoke of it openly and treated it as a disease instead of a moral failing -- and his campaign for sex education, saying words like condom out loud. Shocking. As for the pro-abortion left -- excuse us, the pro-choice left -- it objected to his unswerving reverence for human life.

Together with Francis Schaeffer, the doctor would write a small classic of the pro-life movement ("Whatever Happened to the Human Race?") in which would say all manner of politically incorrect things, however prophetic. For example:

"Once the value of human life has been depreciated, as in Roe v. Wade and the Baby Doe Case, no one is safe. Once 'quality of life' is substituted for the absolute value of human life itself, we all are endangered. Already respected scientists are calling for a time period following birth (a week or so) to decide if newborns have 'sufficient quality of life' to be allowed to live. Already committees of 'medical professionals' would like to decide whether the 'quality of life' of the elderly or anyone seriously ill is high enough to allow them to go on living."

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Dr. Koop had foreseen "death panels" long before the idea had become a volatile topic of political debate -- and understood the fatal potentialities in stylish clich like quality-of-life. It wasn't just in the medical journals, where he documented his pioneering work as a pediatric surgeon in numerous articles, but in the nation's conscience that C. Everett Koop left his mark.

The doctor never let his faith interfere with his science, or his science with his faith. He was true to both. He never saw any need to reconcile them because they didn't conflict. But supported each other. Like intelligence and conscience.

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If any of the good doctor's stands aroused more ire than his views on abortion and the rights of handicapped children, it was his campaign against smoking, which did not please the tobacco industry and powerful lobby, not at all. It was during his tenure as surgeon general -- in 1988 -- that his office released an irrefutable study on the addictive powers of tobacco.

As early as 1984, the doctor had challenged Americans to "create a smoke-free society in the United States by the year 2000." The prospect seemed a fantasy then, but year by year, it became closer to reality as this country led the world in fighting the noxious weed. Just during his time as surgeon general, smoking rates in this country dropped from 38 to 27 percent. He fought Big Tobacco with scientific evidence, political savvy and, perhaps most effective, social ostracism. He helped made smoking unfashionable, and fashion can be all in such a fight.

Dr. Koop may have made his errors of judgment. For example, he got entirely too close, too profitably to the manufacturers of some of the health products he'd helped develop. But his campaign against smoking, including the second-hand variety, was no mistake; it was more a vision achieved.

As surgeon-in-chief at Children's, he not only established innovative programs but taught, wrote and generally educated. He proceeded to do much the same as surgeon general of the United States, only on a larger scale and with a host of critics attacking his every pronouncement as he turned his office into a bully pulpit. He remained undaunted. And the target of angry critics. Like any man who takes a stand on moral issues.

Dr. Koop caught it from both sides -- the Advanced Thinkers and the Bible Thumpers, too. And he didn't seem to mind at all. Neither did President Reagan, who stuck by the doc throughout his long and controversial tenure as surgeon general. By its end, whatever Americans might think about his science or religion (he was what used to be called an Iron Presbyterian), he was universally admired and trusted. With that Amish-style beard and family-doctor manner, he'd become a kind of American institution. They called him the nation's doctor -- which is what he had become.