Koop worked tirelessly into his 90’s for the common good, shedding light upon the scourge of numerous social issues, like drunk driving and HIV. He recognized how bad behavior revealed a sickness of soul, needing more than just better medicine. To Koop, social problems exposed of a loss of hope in the worth and dignity of humankind, and the decaying respect for principles which foster human flourishing.
His book with Dr. Francis Schaeffer, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, brought reason to bear upon the abortion debate in the U.S., which was spinning into emotional and ideological chaos. Koop showed how its convenience would eventually affect our culture’s value for human life in general. To quote Philip Yancey, Koop pressed on through controversy because he was determined to “fight disease, not people.”
Koop Wore it Well
I think Koop understood that as surgeon general, he had a platform to address causes of unhealthy behaviors rather than just innovations aimed at their consequences. Perhaps that is why he donned the official uniform which other surgeons general didn’t bother wearing. Reagan never removed his jacket in the Oval Office. Like him, Koop had a strong sense of call that transcended the position.
First Do No Harm
His effort to keep the doctor-patient relationship sacrosanct may have been prophetic. The current healthcare mess reflects a fundamental loss of faith in that relationship. Using inequity as leverage, we seem to be exchanging an ideal of patient care for the false security blanket of federally managed medicine.
Koop respected the “human machine” and pressed public discourse towards a healthier respect for its design. Like my father after him, Koop was known to spend extended time giving personal attention to his patients and their families. In an age of billable hours and bottom lines, he will be missed.