If the Reagan administration could lay claim to a genuine "AIDS legacy," it would most certainly be in the appointment of C. Everett Koop as the country's 13th Surgeon General.
Koop, who died last week at the age of 96, was widely regarded as the voice of reason in an administration that had otherwise failed to recognize or act upon what would become the greatest public health crisis in U.S. history.
Known for his public candor and stanch independence, Koop was no stranger to controversy, often from both sides of the political spectrum. Liberal politicians and women's groups loudly decried his conservative views on abortion, while those within Reagan's own cabinet vehemently opposed his advocacy of condom use and sexual education in schools. Even gay activists, who had lauded many of Koop's educational initiatives on HIV/AIDS, were angered by the focus he placed on gay sex (primarily anal sex) as a chief vector for transmission.
Koop remained relatively unscathed by the criticism and was largely regarded as a man able to set aside his own personal, evangelical beliefs in support of sound medical principle. His almost paternalistic appeal, combined with a savvy use of the media, placed him at the forefront of the American consciousness well into the latter part of the 1990s.
Koop's tenure as Surgeon General may, to some, seem conflicted, even contradictory. A devout Christian with strong views on abortion and homosexuality, he nevertheless reinforced the protection of abortion rights, while placing HIV/AIDS as a top priority at a time when anti-gay sentiment was high and the political will was well against him.
It was, perhaps, these sorts of contradictions that made Koop all the more compelling in his self-appointed role as the "health conscience of the country." It was a role that, doubtless, few others could have played.
More on the History of HIV/AIDS
Photograph by the U.S. Public Health Service is in the public domain.