The following is an excerpt from "The 25 Most Influential Alumni", featured in the January/February 2019 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Profile written by Jim Collins ’84.
He began his career as a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1946, at a time when pediatric surgery wasn’t a medical specialty. Through the next 35 years he developed safer anesthesia for infants and toddlers and performed surgeries once dismissed as impossible, successfully operating on newborns with spina bifida and cleft palate and pioneering a new method of repairing hernias. He established the nation’s first neonatal surgical intensive care unit. He separated dozens of conjoined twins. He proved that conditions once thought hopeless were correctable. He saved the lives of thousands.
Koop is most widely remembered as America’s most influential surgeon general. Part of his prominence came from his presence. He stood more than 6 feet tall, had a stentorian voice and a bushy, biblical-looking chinstrap beard that reflected his stern religious beliefs, and wore a white dress U.S. public health service uniform with gold-braid and epaulettes.
Putting science and public health above ideology, Koop from 1982 to 1989 challenged the Reagan administration’s positions on controversial issues. He refused to issue a report that said abortions were harmful to women because data didn’t support those findings. He authored withering reports that revealed smoking was an even greater health hazard than previously believed. He condemned the tobacco industry’s deceptive advertising and publicized the deadly consequences of second-hand smoke. He laid the groundwork for laws that banned smoking in many public places. During his watch, the percentage of Americans who smoked fell by nearly 25 percent.
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