U.S. scientists worked hard to identify the virus and work on ways to fight it, but the government's health education and policy efforts moved far more slowly. Reagan for years was silent on the issue. Following mounting criticism, Reagan in 1986 asked Koop to prepare a report on AIDS for the American public.
His report, released later that year, stressed that AIDS was a threat to all Americans and called for wider use of condoms and more comprehensive sex education, as early as the third grade. He went on to speak frankly about AIDS in an HBO special and engineered the mailing of an educational pamphlet on AIDS to more than 100 million U.S. households in 1988.
Koop personally opposed homosexuality and believed sex should be saved for marriage. But he insisted that Americans, especially young people, must not die because they were deprived of explicit information about how HIV was transmitted.
Koop's speeches and empathetic approach made him a hero to a wide swath of America, including public health workers, gay activists and journalists. Some called him a "scientific Bruce Springsteen." AIDS activists chanted "Koop, Koop" at his appearances and booed other officials.
"I was walking down the street with him one time" about five years ago, recalled Dr. George Wohlreich, director of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a medical society with which Koop had longstanding ties. "People were yelling out, 'There goes Dr. Koop!' You'd have thought he was a rock star."
Koop angered conservatives by refusing to issue a report requested by the Reagan White House, saying he could not find enough scientific evidence to determine whether abortion has harmful psychological effects on women.
He got static from some staff at the White House for his actions, but Reagan himself never tried to silence Koop. At a congressional hearing in 2007, Koop spoke about political pressure on the surgeon general post. He said Reagan was pressed to fire him every day.