C. Everett Koop, the Only US Surgeon General Frank Zappa Sang About, Dead at 96

1916-2013.<a href="http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/QQ/B/C/T/C/">United States Public Health Service</a>


C. Everett Koop, the most famous Surgeon General the United States ever had, passed away Monday at his New Hampshire residence. He was 96.

Koop, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served until 1989, was famous for the aggressive anti-smoking campaign he launched in 1984. A former smoker, Koop challenged the country to become “smoke-free” by the year 2000, and railed against cigarettes as “the most important individual health risk in this country.” His unprecedented action on AIDS awareness drove Reagan administration policy and kick-started a national conversation on sex education and safe sex. His initial report on the disease drew heated controversy for its frank discussion of sodomy, condoms, and his advocacy of teaching sex ed to kids as early as the third grade. (The government printed 20 million copies.) And although he staunchly opposed abortion on religious grounds, he declined to use his position to campaign against legal and safe abortion in America.

For these and other high-profile efforts, Koop became a household name (a level of fame unusual for a public health administrator), with some admirers referring to him as a “scientific Bruce Springsteen” and a “rock-star.” He is also the only US Surgeon General to, a) have had his own reality TV show, and b) have a Frank Zappa song written about him.

In 1991, Koop hosted a five-part documentary series on NBC called C. Everett Koop, M.D. The show, over which Koop exercised a good deal of creative control, focused on the future of health and medicine, as well as the shortcomings of the United States health care system. C. Everett Koop, M.D. also made Koop the first and only Surgeon General to win an Emmy Award. Critic Walter Goodman of the New York Times dubbed it a “painfully timely series,” and Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly wrote that “Koop has the presence of a natural TV star.”

Obviously not everyone was a gentle admirer of Koop’s: During a 1988 world tour, experimental rock artist Frank Zappa performed a hip-hop-tinged funk song titled “Promiscuous” that was harshly critical of Koop’s and other Republicans’ approach to the AIDS crisis. (You can hear part of the song here.) The lyrics are not quite safe for work; but here’s a verse:

Is Doctor Koop a man to trust?

It seems at least that Reagan must

(And Ron’s a trusting sort of guy –

He trusts Ed Meese

I wonder why?)

I WONDER WHY

WONDER WHY

Zappa’s opinion was evidently not the prevailing one: In 1990, Koop was presented with the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. And in 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.