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C. Everett Koop, ex-surgeon general, dies

Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop speaks during a press conference on November 27, 2001 in Washington, DC.Alex Wong / Getty Images

Charles Everett Koop, who raised the profile of the surgeon general by riveting America's attention on the then-emerging disease known as AIDS and by railing against smoking, has died in New Hampshire at age 96.

“Dr. Koop passed peacefully at home this afternoon,” Susan Willis, a spokeswoman at Koop’s Dartmouth Institute in Hanover, N.H., told NBC News. She declined to give a cause of death but noted Dr. Koop's age.

Koop changed the previously low-profile position of surgeon general into a bully pulpit for seven years during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Yet, as an evangelical Christian, he surprised conservatives when he endorsed condoms and sex education — in order to stop the spread of AIDS, which blossomed into a national epidemic on his watch.

He also embarked on a mission to end smoking in the United States — his goal had been to do so by 2000. A former pipe smoker, he said cigarettes were as addictive as heroin and cocaine.

Even though the surgeon general has no real authority to set government policy, Koop described himself as "the health conscience of the country."

"My only influence was through moral suasion," Koop said just before leaving office in 1989.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 14, 1916, Koop graduated from Dartmouth College in 1937 with a degree in zoology and received his M.D. degree from Cornell Medical College in 1941, according to a release from Darthmouth.

"Dr. Koop did more than take care of his individual patients — he taught all of us about critical health issues that affect our larger society," said Carol L. Folt, the president of Dartmouth College, where Koop later established an institute named after him.

"Through that knowledge, he empowered each of us to improve our own well-being and quality of life. Dr. Koop's commitment to education allowed him to do something most physicians can only dream of: improving the health of millions of people worldwide."

The Associated Press contributed to this report