HANOVER, N.H. —Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop ’37, who operated on and saved the lives of many children through pioneering pediatric surgery, kept in touch with most of his patients throughout the years. He recently received a letter from the mother of a child he operated on five decades ago. The child was celebrating his 50th birthday, and his mother wanted to thank Koop again for saving his life.
Koop died of natural causes in his Hanover home at the age of 96 on Monday. Friends and colleagues remember him as a vivid storyteller and a compassionate, inspirational physician with a good sense of humor.
There will be a memorial service at the First Congregational Church in Woodstock at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 9. A second service is planned for 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 6 at the 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Penn. All are welcome to attend these services.
Koop made his mark during his eight-year term as surgeon general by speaking out about the growing AIDS epidemic and publicizing the danger of tobacco smoking. He was a pioneer in pediatric surgery, including trailblazing work in separating conjoined twins.
Koop was endearingly known to friends as “Chick,” short for “chicken Koop,” and was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Oct. 14, 1916.
At age 5, Koop had already decided to become a surgeon. He majored in zoology at Dartmouth and received a medical degree from Cornell Medical College in 1941 with a speciality in pediatric surgery, at a time when children were generally operated on using the same procedures as those used on adults.
He became a professor in pediatrics and pediatric surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1959, and became the surgeon-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a position he held for 35 years before being appointed surgeon general by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Koop was not afraid to make controversial decisions during his time in Washington, D.C. Despite being a devout Presbyterian, Koop crusaded for sex education in schools and condom use to prevent AIDS transmission. In spite of political pressure from the White House, he refused to state that abortions posed psychological medical risks to women who received them, citing a lack of evidence.
Longtime friend and colleague Joseph O’Donnell said that Koop showed real courage in the face of political pressure.
“He based all his decisions on the science,” O’Donnell said. “He made the right decisions for the American people. That inspired me, the fact that he would just take a stand for things he knew were right no matter how unpopular.”
As a practicing pediatric surgeon, Koop gained fame for separating conjoined twins on three occasions. He was also known for reconstructing the chest of a baby born with its heart outside of its body.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton presented Koop with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the most prestigious civilian award.
Following his career as surgeon general, Koop moved to Hanover in 1992 and founded the C. Everett Koop Institute at the Geisel School of Medicine, then known as Dartmouth Medical School. Koop wished to preserve the traditional and compassionate relationship between doctors and their patients through the institute’s work.
Koop had a leading role at Dartmouth’s Center on Addiction, Recovery and Education, and lectured extensively about public health issues, O’Donnell said.
Though Koop utilized and praised new medical technology, he tried to preserve the “art of medicine,” what Koop considered to be practice based on a doctor’s senses and personal observations, O’Donnell said.
Because of Koop’s stern demeanor and long beard, most people thought he was a serious man, but he actually loved joking around and spending time with children, O’Donnell said.
He captivated audiences with his stories on topics including patient encounters, funny and interesting anecdotes about the inner workings of the Reagan and Bush administrations and high pressure deals with Russians during the Cold War. In one of Koop’s famous anecdotes, he was locked in a closet with Reagan during a bomb scare and, through negotiations, convinced the conservative president to acquiesce on issues like cracking down on tobacco companies and spreading knowledge of the AIDS epidemic, said Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center surgeon Joseph Rosen, Koop’s friend and colleague of nearly 20 years.
Koop knew how to resolve problems creatively, even if it meant taking matters into his own hands, Rosen said.
While Koop worked in a Philadelphia hospital, patients stole numerous items from the hospital during a time of financial stress. To tackle the problem head on, Koop set up a table to confront patients as they checked out, accusing each of them of stealing from the hospital. The patients were so frightened that they stopped stealing altogether.
O’Donnell recalled one warm August day when students lounged on the lawn in front of Geisel. Koop, with his serious voice, approached the students, and instructed them to observe his walk, and diagnose his problem.
As Koop walked back to his office, the students sat frantically trying to determine a cause for his limp. When O’Donnell asked Koop about it later, he said, “I had a blister on my toe.”
Rosen remembers Koop as someone who could endure people teasing him. At his house, Koop had a wall filled with newspaper cartoons caricaturing him when he was surgeon general.
A family man, Koop had a picture of his son David Kopp ’69, who died in a climbing accident, on the mantle above his fireplace.
Koop traveled around the country to lecture about the dangers of smoking and other public health issues. Susan Wills, his assistant of 16 years, who accompanied him on most trips, said people would swarm around them to thank Koop for saving their lives, convincing them to quit smoking or just being “the best Surgeon General ever.”
His 90th birthday party in Washington, hosted by then-senator Hillary Clinton and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Ut., exemplified the bipartisanship work Koop embodied.
He continued to lecture at the College and throughout the country until two years ago, when his advancing age and wheelchair made travel difficult.
Koop’s first wife died in 2007, and he is survived by his second wife Cora Hogue Koop, whom he married in 2010; three children, visiting history professor Allen Koop ’65, Norman Koop and Elizabeth Thompson; and eight grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to any of the following:
The C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth, Geisel School of Medicine, 7025 Parker House, Hanover, NH 03755, Stony Brook School, 1 Chapman Way, Stony Brook, NY 11790 or The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Foundation, 34th Street and Civic Center Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19104.
Condolence cards/letters may be sent to: Mrs. C. Everett Koop and Family, C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth, The Geisel School of Medicine, 7025 Parker House, Hanover, N.H. 03755.
This obituary first appeared in the March 7, 2013 print edition of the Vermont Standard.
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