He was among the last survivors of a small generation of American doctors forced by World War II into highly responsible roles at very young ages. After the war, many became academic physicians and researchers who helped fuel the explosion of medical therapeutics in the second half of the 20th century. In Dr. Koop’s case, the new frontier was pediatric surgery, a specialty that barely existed when he entered it. He became one of the half-dozen leading practitioners in the world.
A Coney Island epiphany
Charles Everett Koop, an only child, was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 14, 1916. His father, who did not finish high school, was an officer at a bank. His mother occasionally assisted in at-home surgical operations in the neighborhood by administering anesthesia — a task the surgeon often farmed out to a responsible bystander. His paternal grandparents lived with his family, and his maternal grandparents and many cousins lived nearby.
Dr. Koop claimed he first expressed a desire to become a surgeon when he was 6 years old.
His maternal grandfather used to take him to Coney Island. In a conversation in 2007, Dr. Koop said this was not only for the entertainment, but also to teach the boy how to spot hustlers and grifters. He recalled an unusual sideshow — a display of premature infants in incubators, attended by nurses from the New York Foundling Hospital.
“I often thought how much of my life I spent with my hands in one of those incubators,” he said. “Every time I would go and work on a baby, in the beginning, I’d have these reminiscences of Coney Island, where I first saw them.”
Dr. Koop attended Dartmouth College on a football scholarship but had to give up the sport after suffering an eye injury. He majored in zoology and graduated in 1937. That fall he entered Cornell University’s Medical College, in New York City.
He graduated in 1941 and did an internship in Philadelphia before starting surgical training at the University of Pennsylvania. By the time his residency began, just months after the Pearl Harbor attack, much of the surgical staff had entered military service.
That left a large amount of work to the surgical residents, and Dr. Koop proved to be an unusually skilled and energetic one. Within six weeks of starting on July 1, 1942, he was removing gallbladders and doing unassisted partial resections of stomachs — his supervisors notified but not present.
Although he was married, and by 1944 a father as well, he spent nearly all his time at the hospital. He estimated that he did as many operations in four years as residents do in “seven or eight years — there was nobody around to do the surgery.”