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One Man's Legacy

Dr. C. Everett Koop

Dr. C. Everett Koop, who passed away at his home in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, on Monday, February 26, at the age of 96, was, without a doubt, the most famous surgeon general in U.S. history and also its most accomplished. A pioneering pediatric surgeon, and highly regarded speaker, author, educator, and businessman, he’s best known, perhaps, for his passionate, unrelenting, and remarkably successful campaign against smoking, and for his efforts to warn Americans about the dangers of AIDS.

In 1964, the Office of the Surgeon General published its first report on smoking and health, and, after he was named surgeon general by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Koop made the elimination of smoking a personal crusade.

“Smoking kills 300,000 Americans a year,” he pointed out. “Smokers are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers, two times more likely to develop heart disease. Smoking a pack a day takes six years off a person’s life.”

An imposing 6' 1" figure with a biblical white beard, Koop resurrected the official surgeon general’s regalia—the gold-braided, dark-blue uniform of a vice admiral—and made his presence known, and remembered, wherever he went.

© dvarg - Fotolia.comWhen he took office, 33% of Americans smoked, but, by the time he left seven years later, that number had fallen to 26%. “By 1987,” The New York Times reports, “40 states had restricted smoking in public places, 33 had prohibited it on public conveyances, and 17 had banned it in offices and other work sites. More than 800 local antismoking ordinances had been passed, and the federal government had restricted smoking in 6,800 federal buildings. Antismoking campaigns by private groups like the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association had accelerated.”

The impact that Koop had on the nation’s public health continues to be felt today. In August, the Gallup Poll reported that the percentage of Americans who smoke now stands at just 20%—an all-time low since Gallup began tracking the issue in 1944.

One can only guess at how much disability, disease, and death has been avoided since the surgeon general’s report on smoking appeared in 1964, when usage stood at 40%, and March of 2013. Much of that progress is due to one man.

Another study, A Report of the Surgeon General: Physical Activity and Health, published in 1996, has not yet had the same sort of dramatic, widespread affect. If it is ever to do so, it will require that type and depth of courage, conviction, and commitment demonstrated by Dr. C. Everett Koop.

CBI Unbound mourns the passing of “America’s Doctor.”

- Craig R. Waters is the editor-in-chief of CBI and can be reached at

Reader Comments (1)

Great article. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and he was humble, bold, sincere, driven, and engaging.

In my lifetime, few people have had as much of an impact on health and wellness as Dr. Koop. He showed that one man on a mission can accomplish anything!


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