Dr. C. Everett Koop's medical heroics are well noted, but he may be better remembered for transforming from a pariah in the eyes of the public health community into a remarkable servant who elevated the influence of the U.S. surgeon general.
An assistant at his institute at Dartmouth College, Susan Wills, says Koop died Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 96. She didn't disclose the cause of death.
Koop was a breed apart from his political bosses during the Reagan administration.
He thundered about the evils of tobacco companies and became the government's spokesman on AIDS when it was still considered a "gay disease" by much of the public. He got static from some staff at the White House, but Reagan himself never tried to silence Koop.
Before his appointment, Koop had been a leading figure in medicine. He was one of the first U.S. doctors to specialize in pediatric surgery at a time when children with complicated conditions were often simply written off as untreatable. In the 1950s, he drew national headlines for innovative surgeries such as separating conjoined twins.
"He set the bar high for all who followed in his footsteps," said Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as surgeon general a decade later under President George W. Bush.
After his death was reported Monday, the tributes poured forth, including a statement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made smoking restrictions a hallmark of his tenure.
"The nation has lost a visionary public health leader today with the passing of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who was born and raised in Brooklyn," Bloomberg said.
"Outspoken on the dangers of smoking, his leadership led to stronger warning labels on cigarettes and increased awareness about second-hand smoke, creating an environment that helped millions of Americans to stop smoking — and setting the stage for the dramatic changes in smoking laws that have occurred over the past decade."
Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health taught Koop what was known about AIDS during quiet after-hours talks in the early 1980s and became a close friend.
"A less strong person would have bent under the pressure," Fauci said. "He was driven by what's the right thing to do."