C. Everett Koop: Science was his prescription for chaos — and Phyllis Schlafly

When I think of U.S. Surgeon Generals, only two people come immediately to mind – CNN doc Sanjay Gupta, who was President Barack Obama’s pick for the job in 2009 but declined, and C. Everett Koop, who passed away this week at the age of 96.

Jeanne White Ginder, C. Everett Koop and William Yarber

Jeanne White Ginder and William Yarber present C. Everett Koop with the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award (Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox)

Koop was Surgeon General during the 1980s yet somehow has remained as familiar and comforting to me as if he’d stepped down from the post in recent years. How did that happen? This candid and priceless video, shot in 2010 after Koop was presented the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award by White’s mother, Jeanne White Ginder, and Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington Professor William Yarber, sheds some light on Koop’s appeal and character.

In the video, after the award presentation, Koop shares with Yarber insights about a time when the government did not even have a name for AIDS yet the epidemic had begun. Discord in the president’s cabinet, widespread fear and ignorance of the disease (many people thought bedbugs and computer keyboards could spread the virus) and a surprise assist from France (twice) in getting the word out to Americans are some of the circumstances discussed.

“If I’m describing to you something that seems very chaotic,” he tells Yarber. “It was.”

Koop, a pediatric surgeon, made an enduring name for himself by speaking out again and again about critical and controversial public health issues of the time, the dangers of cigarette smoke being one of these.

Described as an emerging leader in the prolife movement, he gained the attention of the Reagan administration. After his appointment, however, he surprised conservatives and liberals alike with his science-based approach to the worsening AIDS epidemic, up until then often discussed in moral, rather than public health terms. He was awarded IU’s Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award for his “bold” and “courageous” efforts to replace the prevalent fear and ignorance of AIDS and HIV with accurate information.

An article in Slate discusses Koop’s influential report, requested by President Reagan:

The 36-page document urged Americans to fight the epidemic as a unified group, rather than condemning certain populations disproportionately affected by the disease. In saying this, Koop attempted to shift the rhetoric of AIDS beyond its association with homosexuality and drug use. As he noted, “We’re fighting a disease, not people.” Koop’s report went further than what most observers had anticipated from the evangelical doctor, calling for comprehensive safe-sex education “at the lowest grade possible.”

The Slate article goes on to describe the media attention surrounding the report:

Media coverage was generally quite positive, but it quickly honed in on Koop’s call for sex education. The Los Angeles Times declared: “Koop Urges AIDS Sex Course in Grade School.” Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum, denounced the AIDS report for looking “like it was edited by the Gay Task Force” and accused Koop of advocating that third-graders learn the rules of “safe sodomy.” Airing his frustration to reporters, Koop retorted, “I’m not surgeon general to make Phyllis Schlafly happy. I’m surgeon general to save lives.”

From USA Today:

“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.

After learning of Koop’s death, Yarber, senior director of the School of Public Health-Bloomington’s Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention, shared kind words about Koop’s legacy.

“Not only was he committed to providing valuable information about AIDS to each American household and to informing the public about the dangers of second-hand smoke, but he also was a gentleman, a loving-soul, and very supportive of young students in public health,” Yarber wrote to friends and colleagues.

In a moving moment during the video, Ginder gives Koop a picture of him standing with Ryan White in 1988. Ryan White acquired HIV from a tainted treatment for hemophilia as a teenager in Indiana and faced harassment and isolation because of the disease.

“You were such a blessing in our lives,” she tells Koop, “ when you came forth — when the political figures were not doing so — acknowledging this disease, and you said, ‘Ryan White, this boy, should be in school.’”

The School of Public Health-Bloomington now awards the Indiana University Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention-sponsored Surgeon General C. Everett Koop HIV/AIDS Research grant for doctoral students studying HIV prevention.

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