Quick! Name any U.S. Surgeon General who held the job before Dr. C. Everett Koop.
Draw a blank? Most people do.That's because Koop held the job for seven years, because his striking appearance and booming voice automatically commanded attention, and because he turned the largely ceremonial post into a major forum for controversial health topics.
Now Koop has announced he will step down July 13, leaving behind an outstanding legacy against which his successors will be measured.
The bearded, barrel-chested Koop, who unlike his predecessors always wore the naval-style uniform of the U.S. Public Health Service, is best remembered for his policies on smoking, AIDS, and abortion.
At a time when many politicians relied heavily on campaign contributions from the tobacco industry, Koop began working doggedly to warn Americans of the health dangers of smoking and chewing tobacco. Pushing for a smoke-free society by the turn of the century, he saw the portion of Americans who smoke decline from 33.5 percent to 26.5 percent during the past seven years.
He also warned that AIDS is a disease that has the potential of killing 100 million people worldwide by the end of the century. Though Koop drew criticism from his usual supporters for his stance on how to combat AIDS, he never mentioned prophylactics without first emphasizing abstinence for the single and fidelity for the married.
As an internationally known pediatric surgeon, he was staunchly opposed to abortion.
These are not Koop's only contributions. He also stressed programs to deal with the health problems of the aged. And he strongly suggested that a steady diet of violent entertainment for the violence-prone individual is as damaging as a diet of sugar and starch for those prone to obesity.
In short, Koop tried to help all Americans regardless of their morals or life-styles. He used his office of Surgeon General to prod this nation toward better health. President Bush will do the country a disservice if, as has been suggested, he demands that Koop's successor keep a lower profile.