Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop 1916-2013

I got to know Dr. Koop fairly well while escorting him around Leningrad in 1986.  He was a man of principle and integrity, and quite the anti-smoking campaigner.  This led to some humorous moments with his Soviet counterparts, who were, shall we say, not quite so dedicated to the cause.  Koop got the last laugh.  He outlived them all, by several decades in some cases.

Surgeon General Koop. (excerpt from Chapter 11.8, Leningrad 1985-1987)
One group that did arrive to do some work was led by C. Everett Koop, who at the time was the U.S. Surgeon General.  The Leningrad Medical Administration laid on a lengthy series of tours of its best hospitals, focusing on treatment of lung cancer, which was of special concern to Dr. Koop.  In briefing his hosts before the visit, I stressed that Dr. Koop was leading an anti-smoking campaign in the U.S., and if at all possible, it would be wise to refrain from smoking in his presence.   This was quite a tall order for the Leningrad doctors.  Nearly every one of them was a chain smoker, and there was no such thing as an anti-smoking campaign in the Soviet Union (although Gorbachev, of course, was pursuing a very active anti-alcohol campaign at the time).  Despite their best efforts, the doctors broke down at the very first meeting.  After about 20 minutes, the head of the Medical Administration lit up a cigarette, and was followed immediately by every other Soviet at the table.  The room soon reeked with the smell of poor quality Soviet tobacco.  Despite his obvious discomfort, Dr. Koop kept a straight face and bore up diplomatically.  A couple of days later, as we all saw Dr. Koop and his party off at the Moscow train station, the head of the Leningrad Medical Administration congratulated me on a successful visit, lit up yet another disgusting Pamir cigarette, and promised to stay in touch ("Созвонимся").  I never saw him again.

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