Koop's straightforward manner comes across in autobiography

October 20, 1991|By Gerri Kobren


C. Everett Koop.

Random House.

320 pages. $22.50.

No one ever accused Dr. C. Everett Koop of keeping his mouth shut. The former surgeon general of the United States always called it as he saw it, confounding the liberals who opposed his appointment and the conservatives who endorsed it.

Nicotine is addictive, he said. AIDS has to be fought with sex education. Using a condom is preferable to dying. Abortion has not been shown to damage the woman's psyche. If contraception information were available to more women, fewer would want to abort.

Necessary truths, they galvanized public opinion. Statements from the surgeon general suddenly mattered. In the sea of

conservatively suited and barbered administration interchangeables, Dr. Koop's jaw-lining white beard and resplendent admiral's uniform -- the symbol of the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service -- made him an instantly recognized celebrity.

As surgeon-in-chief at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia from 1948 to 1981, he was no shrinking violet, either. A pioneer in his field, he designed new operative procedures, saving children for whom it seemed there was no hope. He created the first support groups for parents of dying children and for the medical staff who took care of them.

He also developed an anti-abortion book and seminar series. According to his memoirs, it was his opposition to abortion rather than his expertise in medicine that caught the attention of the Reagan headhunters and also incurred the wrath of women's groups, organized labor, even the American Medical Association all of whom opposed his confirmation as surgeon general.

As he tells it here, his toughest battles came afterward, when he locked horns with the president's staff. From Dr. Koop's point of view, these people operated with their heads in the sand, or followed the political winds. Hating homosexuality, they could not come to grips with AIDS. Pressured by special interests, they thwarted his attempts to battle tobacco. Dug in on abortion, they had allowed the debate to deadlock, while the anti-abortionists demonstrated stridence, vindictiveness and lack of integrity and compassion. Mr. Reagan himself was a compassionate sort, but reasoned from anecdote rather than information and remained generally aloof from the health problems of the nation.

Dr. Koop pulls no punches. Phyllis Schlafly, he writes, is one of the "shrill self-appointed protectors of the public morality." White House aide Carl Anderson wanted Dr. Koop to state that "all Americans" oppose homosexuality, promiscuity and prostitution, "and did not seem to understand that I could not say it because it was not true."

Margaret Heckler, secretary of Health and Human Services in 1984, thwarted his campaign against smokeless tobacco by her "obstructive inactivity." The tobacco industry itself can "buy its way into the marketplace of ideas and pollute it with its false and deadly information."

It's an exciting tale -- told with all the passion of a history text. Dr. Koop's memories of childhood pass in a Norman Rockwell blur. His marriage to a doctor's daughter, who kept the home fires burning in her role as doctor's wife, has been idyllic. His career as a surgeon was a long, smooth success. His tenure as surgeon general was a struggle with a bunch of characters -- but no real people.

While the plain, straightforward style is in exact accord with the image of the author, his story should have had a little more pizzazz.

Ms. Kobren is a writer for the To Your Health section of The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.