C. Everett Koop: The Man, The Beard, The Legend

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THIS WEEK IN DEATH MARCH 1, 2013

C. Everett Koop: The Man, The Beard, The Legend How the obituaries remembered our most famous surgeon general

A regular roundup of how the obituaries remembered the lives of the week's most prominent dearly departed.

The story of C. Everett Koop, as told by his obituarists this week, was one of contradictions.

The face of the U.S. Public Health Service had no formal training in public health policy when he became surgeon general in 1981 after decades as a pediatric surgeon. An anti-abortion conservative Presbyterian who thrilled the religious right and infuriated liberals, Koop would eventually force the Reagan administration to issue a report urging condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS. Arguably the most trusted doctor in America by the time he retired, Koop then went on to set up a medical website, the now-defunct DrKoop.com, that mixed advertorial and promotional copy with actual health information.

Koop would prove an “unlikely hero” in the years after AIDS developed, as the Washington Post puts it. “Few people expected him to talk about homosexuality, anal intercourse, condoms and intravenous drug use when almost nobody else in the Reagan administration would even utter the word ‘AIDS,’” the Post says. Confirmed over fierce opposition from Senate Democrats, Koop arrived in Washington just after the disease was discovered. And, The New York Times reports, he came to believe “the Reagan administration had been slow to address the disease because the election had brought to power people who were antithetical to homosexuals, then thought to be its only victims. Dr. Koop, however, believed information was the most useful weapon against HIV at a time when there was little treatment for the infection and widespread fear that it might soon threaten the general population.” The Los Angeles Times recalls the fervor among conservatives for measures like “quarantine of patients, mandatory screening of homosexuals for the AIDS virus,” but says “they did not reckon with” Koop’s 1986 report on the disease, which the New York Times notes he revised seventeen times: “Viewed with horror by the right, the report called for the widespread use of condoms to halt the transmission of the virus and sex education for children as young as third-graders to promote ‘safe sex.’” Phyllis Schlaffly, the Boston Globe says, accused Koop of “teaching sodomy to third-graders.”

Compared to the drama of Koop’s fight against his own natural political allies over AIDS, the stakes of his scathing reports on tobacco—which the New York Times plays up more than his AIDS positions—seem lower. “As much as anyone, it was Dr. Koop who took the lead in trying to wean Americans off smoking, and he did so in imposing fashion,” the Times says, noting that 33 percent of the country smoked when he took office and only 26 percent did when he left. Even before he became the surgeon general, the Philadelphia Inquirer reminds local readers, Koop had already become “a pioneer in surgery on newborns, developing techniques for birth defects that, before him, had meant certain death” when he ran the pediatric surgery department at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he established the country’s first neonatal intensive care unit.

The LA Times, more than other papers, shows what a disappointment Koop must have been to abortion opponents, who had so cheered his nomination by Ronald Reagan in 1981. “Despite his own strong opposition to abortion, he recommended the procedure be mentioned among options for pregnant women with the AIDS virus,” the paper notes. In 1987, Reagan asked Koop for a report outlining how abortion could harm women’s health. “By 1989, he concluded that there were no good scientific studies one way or the other, notified Reagan of his findings and ordered his staff to drop the report. Ultimately, however, the report was issued under his name without his approval and its release led in part to his early resignation from the post.”

The Boston Globe dwells more on the DrKoop.com fiasco than the New York Times does, even though it was Times reporting that helped bring the company down: The site “was labeled ‘drkoop.con’ by one critic as its stock spiked during the dot.com fever of the late 1990s before plummeting. The website’s firm declared bankruptcy in 2001. The New York Times revealed that Dr. Koop received a commission on some products ordered through the site.”

The Globe also notes another Koop credential: He inspired Homer Simpson. “On a 1993 episode of The Simpsons, [Homer] sang, ‘For all the latest medical poop/Call Surgeon General C. Everett Koop/Poo poo pa-doop.’”

THE TEXAN WHO CONQUERED RUSSIA

The cliché says politics, not piano, is war by other means. But in the late 1950s, just about anything that pitted Soviets against Americans would do. And so it was that Van Cliburn became a national hero. Cliburn, who died Wednesday at seventy-eight, won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Festival, held in Moscow in 1958, “at a time when Cold War tensions were running high, coming just six months after the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite,” the Los Angeles Times recalls. The win “was viewed as an American triumph over the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. He became a cultural celebrity of pop-star dimensions and brought overdue attention to the musical assets of his native land,” the New York Times says in a front-page obit. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had to personally approve letting Cliburn’s win stand. Time magazine would put him on the cover, headlined, “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” The fame, though, came at a price: Only twenty-three when he won in Moscow, Cliburn would wind up playing the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and Rachmaninoff Third that helped him triumph over and over again, stalling his growth and exploration. By 1978, he had retired. “He relinquished his crown while he was still a young man, and his life may be seen as a long study in anticlimax,” says the Washington Post.

The New York Times devotes several paragraphs to Cliburn’s sex life, saying he had been “discreet in his homosexuality” until 1966, when he met then-19-year-old Thomas E. Zaremba. Thirty years later, Zaremba would sue Cliburn seeking millions of dollars in palimony, claiming he’d cared for Cliburn’s mother and served as a business promoter, as well as a boyfriend. The Los Angeles Times’ treatment of Cliburn’s sexuality, though, is like a throwback to the cold war days when he first became famous: An early version of the paper’s obit says “Cliburn, who never married, is survived by his longtime friend, Thomas L. Smith.” A later update notes Zaremba’s palimony suit briefly, then says: “For more than 20 years Cliburn lived with Thomas L. Smith, his friend and manager who survives him.” That chaste phrasing appears to have come from Cliburn’s family; The Washington Post obit says “survivors, according to the announcement from Falcone, include a friend of long standing, Thomas L. Smith.”

ALL DEATH IS LOCAL

The New York Times runs an obit of Martin Zweig, “an influential investor and television pundit who predicted the 1987 stock market crash, published a closely followed newsletter and in 1999 made what at the time was the most expensive residential purchase in New York history,” who died on Monday at seventy. The Miami Herald also has a Zweig obit, but in South Florida, what’s important about him is both his investment skills and his place of birth and death. The paper’s headline? “Coral Gables native Martin Zweig, Wall Street wiz, dies in Florida.”

The Washington Post pays homage to Kitty Weaver, “a poultry farmer, student of primatology, Loudoun County socialite, fox hunter and scholar of Soviet-era education practices,” who died at 102 on Jan. 9.

The Chicago Tribune features a remembrance of Philip M. Handmacher, who died at eighty-eight on January 17. Handmacher “ran a women's clothing stores that sold designer-label apparel at discounted prices” and “devised a variety of ideas to drive sales, including hiring a limousine to bring shoppers from North Michigan Avenue to his Handmoor location just west of the Loop.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“That's one form of global warming I'm totally in favor of. We're defending the world against bland food." — Former McIlhenny Company president Paul McIlhenny, who died Saturday in New Orleans at sixty-eight. McIlhenny’s family business has made Tabasco since 1868; his New Orleans Times-Picayune obituary quoted a crack he made about the importance of hot sauce in winter 2006, when he was about to reign as Rex, the King of Carnival, at the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina. Asked if the Fat Tuesday parades and revelry ought to be canceled, with large swaths of the city still underwater, McIlhenny didn’t hesitate: “If there was any time we ever needed it, it's here. We need to let it all hang out and, in the sense of pre-Lenten revelry, make sure we relax and recreate." 

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