C. Everett Koop — In Memoriam

by Barbara J. Moore, PhD

Dr. C. Everett Koop served as the 13th U.S. Surgeon General and founded Shape Up America!™ in 1994. If he had lived, he would have turned 97 on October 14. It seems fitting at this time to acknowledge Dr. Koop’s commitment to preventing illness and disease by raising public awareness of the importance of healthy weight management.

In 1990, Dr. Koop was honored as the recipient of the Harry S. Truman Award for Public Service. As it happens, these two great men, both of whom dedicated their lives to their country and to public service, shared a number of common interests and values.

Truman was 60 when he became president, yet his youthful appearance, energy and vitality were legendary. Truman faced one crisis after another, including the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, the establishment of the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-war Europe, and the Berlin airlift. He endured unrelenting stress and a grueling work schedule but took it all in stride. A non-smoker, Truman took a brisk two-mile walk "most every morning" and enjoyed an occasional swim. His personal diary contained a description of his typical diet:

I eat no bread but one piece of toast at breakfast, no butter, no sugar, no sweets. Usually have fruit, one egg, a strip of bacon and half a glass of skimmed milk for breakfast; liver and bacon or sweet breads or ham or fish and spinach and another nonfattening vegetable for lunch with fruit for dessert. For dinner I have a fruit cup, steak, a couple of non-fattening vegetables and an ice, orange, pineapple or raspberry… So — I maintain my waist line…1

Dr. Koop was 78 years old when he founded Shape Up America!™ in 1994, yet his energy and vitality were similar to Truman’s. In 1994, there was no voice in the public health community speaking out on obesity. Yet health data gathered by national surveys clearly showed that the prevalence of obesity in America was rapidly increasing and was affecting people of all ages and in all walks of life.

With the support of then First Lady Hillary Clinton, Dr. Koop launched Shape Up America!™ at a high-profile event held in the White House Rose Garden. Prominent researchers and public health leaders in the fields of obesity, nutrition, medicine and exercise science attended the event. The mission of Shape Up America!™, he announced, would be to raise awareness of obesity as a public health issue.

Dr. Koop never knew Harry Truman, but a copy of Dr. Koop's remarks upon receiving the Truman Award includes the following:

…people used the same words to describe Truman and me when we first assumed office. One of the phrases that comes to mind is “uniquely unqualified.” But I think we both proved our critics wrong. The people who yelled, “Give 'em hell, Harry!” said to me, “Sock it to 'em, Doc!”

Like Truman, Dr. Koop worked long days in his “retirement.” Koop continued to play an active role addressing challenges to public health. He spoke out on obesity as well as smoking, HIVAIDS and other serious public health issues.

On the occasion of Dr. Koop's birthday on October 14, we acknowledge his leadership, industry, eloquence and great spirit as a spokesman for the public health community, and to thank him for his many years of dedicated service to raising awareness of obesity as a serious health issue. He is sorely missed.

Barbara J. Moore, PhD, is President and CEO of Shape Up America!™

1McCullough D. Truman. New York: Touchstone; 1992:857
2McCullough D. Truman. New York: Touchstone; 1992:859
3Koop, C. Everett. Remarks [upon receiving the] Truman Award. Independence, MO: May 6, 1990. Available at: http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/QQ/B/D/G/N/_/qqbdgn.pdf

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