Born in Brooklyn, he earned the A.B. degree from Dartmouth (1937) and his medical degree from Cornell (1941). Just a year after receiving the Doctor of Science (Medicine) from the University of Pennsylvania (1947), he became Surgeon-in-Chief of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
It was there that he met Francis and Edith Schaeffer (1948). In his new book Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality, William Edgar tells the story:
[The Schaeffers’ daughter] Priscilla contracted a strange illness, causing her to vomit violently. At the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital the doctors were baffled. A thirty-two-year-old physician named C. Everett Koop walked into the room, examined Priscilla, and diagnosed her with “mesenteric adenitis,” a disease he had just been studying. He had learned that most often the condition could be cured by the removal of the appendix, for reasons not clear to medical science. Edith mentioned to Dr. Koop that they were moving to Switzerland to become missionaries. Koop had just become a believer through the ministry of Tenth Presbyterian Church on Seventeenth and Spruce Streets. He performed the operation himself. Just before he wheeled Priscilla into the operating room, a telegram came in from Fran, who was traveling in Nashville, saying, “Dear Priscilla, Remember underneath are the everlasting arms. Love, Daddy.” Dr. Koop was deeply moved by the marvel of this kind of faith. Later, Fran [i.e., Francis Schaeffer] and he would meet and forge a friendship that led, among other things, to casting the film Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
Years later Dr. Koop explained during a Wheaton interview the way in which he would bring his Christian worldview to bear upon his own view of surgery and care for the family. He would always tell the families:
Let me assure you that if I thought that I was walking into that operating room in my own steam, my own power, my own knowledge and was going to operate upon your child—and its survival depended upon me—I wouldn’t open the door. I believe that I am a servant of the Lord and that I am going to that operating room with gifts that he has given me. But your child is in his hands, and he will guide me, and I will let you know everything I can about the future of your child.
Koop himself lost a child, David, who was a junior at Dartmouth when he died during a mountain climbing accident.
Dr. Koop became Professor of Pediatric Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine in 1959 and Professor of Pediatrics in 1971.
In March of 1981 President Ronald Reagan appointed him Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), and later that year as Surgeon General.
His tenure as Surgeon General is widely remembered for his work related to abortion, tobacco, HIV/AIDS, and the rights of babies born with birth defects and handicaps. He served as Surgeon General until 1989.
Update: Christianity Today is posting a number of pieces from their archives. The most extensive is Phillip Yancey’s profile from 1989. See also Carl Henry’s interview with Koop from 1973, Koop’s 1987 piece on death and dying, and a report on a 1990 talk he gave on abortion, contraception, healthcare, AIDS, and homosexuality.