Koop: A physician first

The death of retired U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop reminds me of his forthright answer to a question I asked him about AIDS.

It was the early 1980s, and the Reagan administration was largely silent as thousands of Americans got sick and died. The President himself did not speak publicly about AIDS until 1985,  four years into the epidemic.

But Koop, who was surely as conservative as anyone in the Great Communicator’s White House, recognized early on that the threat to public health was grave, and anti-AIDS campaigns by organizations in the gay community were effective.

Tall, bearded, and bow-tied,  the Surgeon General was an imposing figure as he spoke to reporters during a visit to a private school in Cumberland County, NJ.

I asked him about the federal response to AIDS, and while I don’t recall the words (and can’t find the clipping, either) I do remember him talking about the epidemic not as a political or “moral” issue, but as a danger to the citizens whose health he was sworn  to protect.

Whatever Koop’s private views of homosexuality, the feverish homophobia among many of his fellow conservatives found no place in the Surgeon General’s public conduct. He was an ideologue second, a  physician, first.

"We were fighting a disease," he said in an interview years after his retirement. "Not the people who had it."

Rest in peace, Dr. Koop.