The man regarded as perhaps the most influential surgeon general in U.S. history died earlier this week.
C. Everett Koop, who served as surgeon general from 1982-89 following his appointment by President Ronald Reagan and subsequent confirmation by the Senate, died Feb. 25 at his home in Hanover, N.H., at the age of 96.
A longtime Presbyterian who converted to Christianity at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia under Dr. Donald Gray Barnhouse, Koop was a pediatric surgeon who developed techniques for operating on newborn babies. He spent 35 years at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, establishing the first neonatal intensive care unit in the nation.
He gained global acclaim for performing operations that had rarely, if ever, been done. One example was the separation of conjoined twins.
Koop had a tie to the Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC). He spent time working with Dr. William B. Kiesewetter, an original PLC board member and the father of current board member Connie Elliott.
Kiesewetter was one of the original members of the PLC when it was formed in 1965. He practiced with Koop as an associate pediatric surgeon at Children’s Hospital from 1950-55 before leaving to head the children’s hospital at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Chick Koop has been a fixture in my life,” said Elliott, a PLC board member since 2000. “I was pretty young, and most of my memories of him are from my childhood and my dad’s association with him as a partner. Chick was a formative part of (Elliott’s father’s) life.”
Elliott recalled how strong her father’s faith was, and she saw that in Koop as well.
“They both were strong Christians, and their faith and profession always was a tie for them,” Elliott said. “The important thing to know about Chick Koop is that he was a sold-out believer.”
Koop spoke out against smoking, abortion, teen suicide, domestic abuse, drunk driving and the lack of health coverage during his tenure as surgeon general. He also played a major role in educating the country about AIDS.
Koop’s pro-life stance against abortion also caused many members of Congress to speak against him in confirmation hearings. Though he opted not to use his position as a platform to declare his opposition to abortion, he worked to decry the practices of abortion and euthanasia through a series of books and films. The Christian News reported that as a medical professional, Koop believed that “the life of the mother” exception for abortion was unfounded.
He opined that should complications arise toward the end of pregnancy, other methods could be used to protect both mother and child.
“(The doctor’s) intention is to save the life of both the mother and the baby,” he said. “The baby’s life is never willfully destroyed because the mother’s life is in danger.”
The ever-conservative Koop declined to state that abortion procedures performed by qualified medical professionals posed a substantial health risk to the women whose pregnancies were being terminated, despite political pressure to endorse such a position. He deemed it a moral and religious matter rather than a health issue.
“He was very definite about what he believed,” Elliott said of Koop. “The things he did as surgeon general were remarkable. He withstood criticism from the right and left (politically) with a great deal of grace and integrity. He was a very strong man personally, very intense about everything he did.”
Koop said his Presbyterian faith had helped him and his wife cope with the death of their 19-year-old son David, who was killed in 1968 when a cliff gave way while he was climbing in New Hampshire. Koop and his wife wrote about the loss of their child in Sometimes Mountains Move, published in 1974.
“I remember that vividly,” Elliott recalled. “Dr. Koop even had my father sit in on a meeting he was supposed to oversee because he was not able to do it.”
Elliott said her father and Koop maintained their professional relationship through the years until Kiesewetter died.
“They continued to have a cordial relationship professionally even after they went their separate ways,” she said. “They were always colleagues, professionally and spiritually.”
I write from New Hampshire in the heart of “Koop” country. C. Everett Koop also left a personal legacy of faith, which is not mentioned by Mr. Key, who speaks so well of Koop’s national legacy of health which was guided and directed by his faith in God.
Down the road from my church in one direction (less than 8 miles), lives his son Allen, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, who preaches at two small churches each Sunday. In another direction about the same distance, his daughter and C. Everett’s granddaughter, Heather, preaches at another small congregation. Some 50 miles west in Vermont, lives another son, Norman, who leads a growing and thriving church.
When I think of these three members of the Koop family, I know individuals of great faith, dedicated disciples of Christ, who share the gospel message in the challenging un-churched region in which we minister. I also know that their parents (Mrs. Koop died a few years ago) and grandparents were vital in the planting of that seed of faith which has grown and now helps others grow in faith through their various ministries.
I never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Koop, but one of my elders worked very closely with him after he retired as Surgeon General. Dartmouth set up an institute for him to lead which promoted children’s health education. She admired not just his creative and innovative approach to improving the health and well being of children, she was always struck by his deep and abiding faith. She once told me, “Dr. Koop is an inspiration to work with, be mentored by, and to be guided towards a deeper relationship with God.”
Dr. Koop’s main legacy will be remembered on the national level, but here in central west New Hampshire and east Vermont, we will continue to see how his faith touched individuals, and will continue to do so for generations to come!