Dr. C. Everett Koop, the nation’s 13th Surgeon General, died on Monday at the age of 96. He held the position of Surgeon General from 1982 to 1989, after his appointment by President Ronald Regan. While AIDS had just been discovered in the United States in 1981, its spread, as we know, moved rapidly throughout the country and became an epidemic.
Dr. Koop, serving in a previously low-profile position, used his power as Surgeon General to provide to all Americans the power to stop the spread of AIDS: the power of knowledge. He authored a 7-page brochure, “Understanding AIDS,” explaining in explicit detail what was then known about how HIV was transmitted. The brochure was mailed to all 107 million households in the country in 1988! Dr. Koop’s educational outreach is remarkable not only because of its scale, but because he was able to view the scientific evidence before him and communicate scientific, medical information, without accompanying political propaganda, that saved lives — even, as the Washington Post notes, “when almost nobody in the Reagan administration would even utter the word ‘AIDS’.”
Dr. Koop was personally opposed to premarital sex and homosexual sexual relations, but his devotion to professional excellence would not allow him to stand by as people died because of lack of information. Not only was he able to clearly explain the varied methods of transmission known at the time, but he explained that everyone was at some risk: it was not a “gay men’s disease.” HIV transmission and AIDS are still a problem (you can read the most up-to-date information on the National Institute of Health’s website), but Dr. Koop’s professional, thoughtful, science-based, and bold action moved the nation forward. Thank you, Dr. Koop. Rest in peace.