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Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop dies at 96

C. Everett Koop, former surgeon general of the United States speaks at the closing ceremonies of the World Conference on Tobacco or Health i
C. Everett Koop, former surgeon general of the United States speaks at the closing ceremonies of the World Conference on Tobacco or Health i

(Reuters) - Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, whose anti-smoking campaign and outspoken, controversial positions on abortion, AIDS and drugs, elevated the obscure post to one of national influence, died at his home in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Monday. He was 96 years old.

Koop, a pediatric surgeon, served as the leading U.S. spokesman on public health matters and adviser to President Ronald Reagan from November 1981 until October 1989. His death was announced by Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, where he founded the C. Everett Koop Institute.

"Dr. Koop was not only a pioneering pediatric surgeon but also one of the most courageous and passionate public health advocates of the past century," said Dr. Wiley W. Souba, dean of the Geisel School.

The gray-bearded Koop, known for his bow ties and suspenders, became one of most recognizable figures in the Reagan administration.

He took stern and sometimes controversial stands on abortion, AIDS, fatty foods, drugs and cigarettes, and moved through the halls of power convinced that he knew what was best for the nation's health.

Koop enraged the powerful tobacco industry and lawmakers grateful for the industry's generous campaign funds with his insistence that smoking kills and should be banned.

Then, in the midst of a heated national debate about how best to halt the spread of AIDS, Koop blocked the Reagan administration's plans for extensive testing. To the applause of gay rights groups, Koop said the disclosure of the test results, intentional or otherwise, could ruin the careers of those tested.

He spearheaded the drive to make education about AIDS the primary means of preventing the disease, writing a brochure about AIDS that was distributed to millions of American households. Attired in the authoritative white military dress uniform of the Public Health Service and its 7,000-member medical corps he disclosed to the public the glum, often indelicate, details of the disease and how to avoid it.

He urged men to use condoms - if they were unable to abstain from sex - to prevent the spread of AIDS, which is transmitted through semen or blood.

At the time, conservative activist and Koop critic Phyllis Schlafly blasted Koop and his attempts at educating the public as "teaching of safe sodomy in public schools." She demanded, unsuccessfully, that Koop stop preaching about safe sex.

At his confirmation hearings before the Senate, he was blasted by one feminist leader as "a monster" for his deeply held position against abortion.

"He saved countless lives through his leadership in confronting the public health crisis that came to be known as AIDS and standing up to powerful special interests like the tobacco companies," U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said on Monday.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 14, 1916, Koop was badly injured as a child in a skiing accident and in playing football, which led him to an interest in medicine.

At 16, he entered Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and later graduated from Cornell Medical School.

Koop was preceded in death by his first wife, Elizabeth, and by their son David, according to Dartmouth.

He is survived by their children Allen Koop, the Rev. Norman Koop and Elizabeth Thompson, as well as by his wife, Cora, whom he married in 2010. He is also survived by eight grandchildren, according to Dartmouth.

(Reporting by Paul Thomasch and Corrie MacLaggan; editing by Christopher Wilson and Jackie Frank)

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