BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - When Surgeon General C. Everett Koop sent pamphlets out to every household in the United States in the early 1980s, explaining what the scientific community knew about AIDS and debunking the myriad myths about the disease, he shocked social conservatives and delighted the public health officials desperately trying to tamp down the hysteria that accompanied the onset of the public health epidemic.
Whenever the surgeon general spoke out against smoking or illustrated the real threat of secondhand smoke, he angered big business, big tobacco and many of the politicians who initially cheered his appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Indiana University public health educator William Yarber met Koop, who died on Monday, in March 2010, when the then-94-year-old pediatrician accepted the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award, presented by the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention within what is now the IU School of Public Health Bloomington.
"I recognize that Dr. Koop received a lot of awards for his work, but I sensed that he was genuinely touched to get this honor because it was named for Ryan White, and his mother, Jeanne White Ginder, and I were there to present it to him," Yarber, senior director of RCAP, told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/YzwU68 ). "He was a very humble person and a person very appreciative of public health efforts."
Through the subsequent establishment of a Surgeon General C. Everett Koop HIV/AIDS Research Grant program at IU, Yarber said he had the good fortune of getting to know the most influential surgeon general in U.S. history on a bit of a personal level. "That only increased my admiration for him and his leadership as one of the most effective surgeon generals ever. He was very much the gentleman and was very approachable to everyone," the IU health educator said.
"He put the needs of the country ahead of politics and was very, very courageous," Yarber said. "He was the kind of person who only comes along once in a generation."
By practically any measure, Koop led an extraordinary life in the latter part of his career. His proposed appointment by Reagan initially was assailed by liberals as a blatant ideological move - putting an evangelical, anti-abortion physician in the position of being the nation's top public health official.
Koop proceeded to confound virtually everyone during his tenure in office.
"Koop turned out to be a scientist who believed in data at least as deeply as he believed in God," writer Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker online. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Koop advocated sex education for children as young as third grade - and included condom education as part of the curriculum.
Brad Wilhelm, director of Rhino's Youth Center in Bloomington, recalled Koop as a strong advocate of a smoke-free society and a pioneer in the campaign to educate the public about the danger of secondhand smoke. "As surgeon general, he was very outspoken on the issue, even going as far as calling out the American Pediatric Society's obligation to inform parents of secondhand smoke," said Wilhelm, who also works as an anti-smoking advocate to Indiana youth.
While saddened by Koop's death, IU's Yarber said he feels honored that the university will have an ongoing link to his legacy, not only through the Ryan White award but the HIV/AIDS Research Grants in his name. White was the Kokomo teen who was banned from his middle school - and taunted by children and adults alike - after contracting AIDS through blood transfusions to treat his severe hemophilia. He became an inspiring advocate for AIDS education until his death in 1990.
"He was a true scientist," Yarber said of Koop. "His position was always, 'What does the science say?' And that was so courageous, because it worked both ways. He also would not take positions people sometimes wanted him to take, because of science. He would not say certain things because there was no scientific evidence. He confounded people in that way.
"Our endowed grants in honor of Dr. Koop are still building, but when fully funded, they will exist in perpetuity," Yarber said. "I'm extremely pleased that we will be able to honor Dr. Koop in this way. He was certainly a hero and a giant in our field. What a gift to public health and to the American people."