No, a Surgeon General Couldn't Stop Ebola

Roundup
tags: Ebola, Surgeon General



Mike Stobbe, an Associated Press medical writer, is author of Surgeon General’s Warning: How Politics Crippled the Nation’s Doctor (University of California Press).

The caricatures. That’s what I remember most about visiting Dr. C. Everett Koop. Dozens of framed editorial cartoons of Koop hung on the staircase wall in his house in Hanover, New Hampshire. Most depicted Koop in his surgeon general’s uniform, sometimes looking stern, sometimes smiling, always the nation’s doctor. They were an impressive testimony to his prominence.

But the drawing I remember best was in his office, nearby on the Dartmouth College campus. It was not of Koop but of Don Quixote—the famous black-line sketch by Picasso. You may recall it: A baking sun backlights Quixote, who sits still atop his horse, holding lance and shield. The squire Sancho Panza is off to the left. In the distance are the windmills.

It dominated the entranceway, but I failed to ask Koop about it. It was July 2006, I was just beginning work on what would become a book about the rise and fall of the surgeons general, and was brimming with other questions. How had Koop grown so influential in the 1980s? How had he managed to put out frank messages about AIDS and condoms in spite of opposition from key White House officials? How had he succeeded without any real budget or administrative power? I had been granted only one hour with the great man and had a lot to cover. I decided to stifle my curiosity about his wall decoration.

That was a mistake.

I appreciate, now, that the Picasso sketch is more than a famous artist’s illustration of Cervantes’ classic novel: It could also be an encapsulation of the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. The lance and shield allude to the position’s former glory, when the surgeon led the nation’s battles against its scariest epidemics. The lack of an army around him—only the pudgy Panza—represents the surgeon general’s current, unsupported status. And we glimpse the future by recognizing that Quixote’s striking silhouette obscures a broken-down old man, impotent against new dangers...




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