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Blinkhorn: Remembering Koop

03/05/13 7:55AM By Tom Blinkhorn
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(Host) The death in Hanover last week of Everett Koop reminded writer and commentator Tom Blinkhorn of a series of interviews he had with the late Surgeon General of the United States, one of the nation's leading pediatric surgeons.

(Blinkhorn) When Everett Koop turned 90 six years ago, I asked to interview him about his extraordinary life. Much to my surprise, he agreed and invited me to his office on the Dartmouth campus. He graduated from the college in 1937 and played football for a time. His teammates nicknamed him "chicken coop", later shortened to Chick.

When I arrived at his office, he was sitting in a chair near his desk, a large, somber looking man with a bushy gray beard, no mustache, trim suit and trademark red bow tie. From his photos, I had expected a no-nonsense, possibly cool, reception so I prepared to break any ice as quickly as possible. I mentioned that we had at least one thing in common.

"What's that?" he responded in a low growl. "I grew up in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I understand you may have a special affection for that part of Canada."

It worked. A smile erupted and he launched into a long story about how, growing up in Brooklyn, his maternal grandfather would take him on summer vacations to Nova Scotia, a singing tour as he called it. They visited lighthouses, traveling by horse and buggy along the shores. The grandfather, a story teller and musician with a five string banjo and a concertina, entertained the keeper, his family and anyone else nearby. Koop said they were some of the happiest days of his life.

Canada also figured in another Koop story. This one involved his public anti-cigarette smoking campaign after he had become Surgeon General in the Reagan administration in the 1980s. In those days, there were no-smoking sections on airplanes, which Koop regarded as a farce since smoke drifted easily around the cabin. He was certain that non-smoking flight attendants and passengers were effectively smoking the equivalent of several cigarettes a day, whether they wanted to or not.

He had a plan to test the saliva and urine of volunteers and the flight crew before, during and after long flights to see if they were absorbing nicotine. He had no trouble finding volunteers but United States airline companies wouldn't agree to the tests. So Koop prevailed on an old friend, the Canadian Minister of Health, to persuade Air Canada to do the tests on flights from Montreal to Vancouver. The tests worked, showing that non-smokers on planes with smoking sections were inhaling significant smoke and nicotine. That was the ammunition needed to help persuade Congress to start banning smoking on planes.

Koop launched other important public health campaigns including pushing the government into taking a more aggressive stand against HIV AIDS at a time when there was little treatment for the infection.

At one of our meetings, I complimented him on his red bow tie. He said it was a 90 th birthday gift from his staff, designed with help from a Vermont company in Montpelier - red with blue stripes, tiny stars and a medical symbol. He sent me one of the regular versions. I plan to wear it at his memorial service in Woodstock this Saturday.

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