Dr. C. Everett Koop, the U.S. surgeon general during the Reagan administration,… (Jim Cole / Associated Press )
WASHINGTON — Dr. C. Everett Koop, who as U.S. surgeon general in the 1980s led high-profile campaigns to highlight the dangers of smoking and to mobilize the nation against an emerging AIDS epidemic, has died. He was 96.
Koop died Monday at his home in New Hampshire, Susan Wills, a colleague at Koop’s Dartmouth Institute, told the Associated Press. The cause was not given.
Unlike his predecessors and many of his successors, who were largely figureheads, Koop initiated a new era of influence for surgeons general by turning the post into a national bully pulpit. He used his eight years as the nation's top doctor to express his opinions on the country's most urgent public health problems -- often to the chagrin and irritation of the man who had appointed him, President Ronald Reagan.
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Koop was an imposing figure with his 6-foot, 1-inch height, his stern, no-nonsense demeanor, his booming preacher's voice and the square-cut beard favored by his Dutch ancestors.
He surprised and delighted his early critics -- and angered those right-wing constituents who initially had supported him -- by applying a scrupulous public health approach to every policy issue that confronted him, regardless of his personal views.
He used his public platform to launch a relentless campaign against smoking, to defend the rights of deformed newborns and -- in a landmark report to the public -- to call for early childhood sex education and the use of condoms in the fight against the AIDS epidemic. Moreover, he condemned AIDS-related discrimination, calling for compassion for those suffering from the deadly disease.
He was an avowed opponent of abortion, but frowned upon the radical tactics of many anti-abortion groups. He also opposed reversing Roe vs. Wade -- the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a woman's right to abortion -- and instead advocated increased education about contraception to end the need for abortion.
Conservatives were infuriated with Koop, and attacked him for abandoning his constituency. At the same time, liberals applauded his transformation. Koop, amused at the uproar, scoffed at both groups and insisted that he had undergone no changes during his tenure. He said he simply believed that politics and personal views had no place in making public health policy.
After he left the surgeon general's post in 1989, he maintained a vigorous and demanding schedule of traveling, lecturing, and writing.
A full obituary will follow at latimes.com/obits.