Skip to Content

C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general of the U.S. who started the government’s public discussion of AIDS during the Reagan administration, has died.

He passed away Monday at the age of 96.

He was by far the best-known surgeon general of his time, and perhaps ever, and for decades after he served, Koop was still a recognized personality.

Al Matthews in Aliens

He almost always appeared in the ribbonned blue or white uniform denoting his leadership of the commissioned corps of the U.S. Public Health Service.

With his mustache-less beard, deep voice and grim expression, he looked like a Civil War admiral or, some joked, a refugee from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical.

The theatrical appearance, however, masked a fierce self-confidence, an unyielding commitment to excellence and a willingness to challenge paradigms.

A 64-year-old retired pediatric surgeon at the time Ronald Reagan nominated him for the post in 1981, Dr. Koop had no formal public-health training.

His chief credential, historians say, was that he was a socially conservative, Christian physician who had written a popular treatise against abortion.

Yet few people expected him to talk about homosexuality, anal sex, condoms and intravenous drug use – which became hallmarks of his tenure.

At a time when almost nobody else in the Reagan administration would even utter the word “AIDS,” Koop believed information was the best defense.

He spoke openly and forcefully. In May 1988, he mailed a seven-page brochure, “Understanding AIDS,” to all 107 million households in the country.