Surgeon General Koop – the maverick who never kept his beliefs “cooped” up

No Smoking Here!
No Smoking Here!

To some, he was an icon; to others, he was an activist. Many even considered his views and positions rather outlandish during the 80’s.

The truth is Charles Everett Koop, who died on February 25, 2013, was a talented pediatric surgeon determined to make people’s lives better. This may be nothing new for a physician, but what made Dr. Koop unique was his ability to influence public opinion about an array of social and health issues, such as: smoking, HIV, homosexuality and sex education. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the post of surgeon general and, for the next seven years, Dr. Koop, with his navy blue uniform and trademark bushy white beard, was a man on a mission – to change public attitudes and policies about major health issues.

“I will use the written word, the spoken word and whatever I can in the electronic media to deliver health messages to this country as long as people will listen,” pledged Dr. Koop during his “Smoke Free Society by 2000” initiative. His campaigns and speeches are credited with helping to reduce the number of smokers in the United States from one-third of the population to 26 percent within a span of seven years. Additionally, thanks to the report he submitted in 1986 on secondary smoking, public smoking was banned nationwide in restaurants, work places, airports and even some universities.

Not only did Dr. Koop’s efforts to eradicate smoking make him unpopular in some sectors, but his insistence that the federal government address AIDS as a health issue, rather than a social issue tied to homosexuality, drew criticism, as well. However, criticism never stopped Dr. Koop from pursuing his agenda, which is why he leaves a legacy as surgeon general that inspired a health advocacy movement and hundreds of anti-smoking and HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns that continue to this day.

– Haritha Krishnarathnam


Haritha is an intern at the TogoRun New York office. Her passion for healthcare comes from her dad, who is a cancer specialist. In her free time Haritha enjoys travelling and attending gourmet chocolate-tasting sessions.