Koop

The Book of the Week is “Koop, The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor” by C. Everett Koop, M.D., published in 1991.

Koop grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In the late 1920’s, when he was in his teens, the operating rooms at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital had no security, so he pretended to be a medical student in order to watch surgeries. He snuck in, thanks to his next door neighbor, who worked there. In the late 1930’s, he began to realize that he was attending the medical school that had the right environment for him– the friendly and cooperative Cornell, rather than the arrogant and competitive Columbia.

Koop’s medical training was abbreviated due to a shortage of personnel during WWII, so that he was performing advanced procedures before he was truly ready to do so. Nevertheless, he had a tough, take-charge personality which stood him in good stead in the face of medical generalists who resented being crowded out when medicine underwent more and more specialization.

For decades, Koop was a pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In 1980, newly-elected President Reagan tapped him to be Surgeon General of the United States. The nomination and confirmation processes were rigorous, as Koop’s personal life-and-death beliefs were clearly favored by conservative Republicans but opposed by liberal Democrats.

Nevertheless, Koop became famous for his anti-smoking crusade. As might be recalled, he educated the American public on the dangers of, and influenced legislation on, smoking. He explicitly wrote: “Smoking is not only dangerous for the smoker, but also dangerous for the nonsmoker who inhales environmental tobacco smoke… [Such] passive smoking causes many diseases, including cancer.” He reported that more than 50% of adults in the United States smoked in 1964; in 1981, 33%. When he resigned as Surgeon General in 1989, that figure was just over 26%.

Read the book to learn of Koop’s adventures in college, in medicine, and as a political appointee.