Antonia Novello headshot

Antonia Novello

When Dr. Antonia Novello was appointed Surgeon General of the United States by President George Bush in 1990, she was the first woman—and the first Hispanic—ever to hold that office. Her appointment came after nearly two decades of public service at the National Institutes of Health, where she took a role in drafting national legislation regarding organ transplantation.

Born Antonia Coello in Farjardo, Puerto Rico, she suffered throughout her childhood from a medical condition that could only be corrected with surgery. Because her family could not afford the long trip to the surgical hospital, she spent part of every summer getting interim treatment in a local hospital. It was only after two surgeries, at age 18 and 20, that the condition was finally corrected. In the meantime, by the time she was a teenager she had decided to be a doctor so that she could help other sick children.

Dr. Novello earned her M.D. degree from the University of Puerto Rico. While in medical school, she met and married Joseph Novello, a U.S. Navy doctor. She later completed her medical training in nephrology (the study of the kidneys) at the University of Michigan, where she was the first woman to be named Intern of the Year.

Novello gained experience in pediatrics in Michigan until 1974 and, after postgraduate work at Georgetown University and several years in private practice, she joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in 1978, working with the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Disorders at the National Institutes of Health. She became deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, where she focused on pediatric AIDS.

Novello continued to work in pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital and in 1982 earned her degree in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. On assignment with the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, she helped draft legislation for the Organ Transplantation Procurement Act of 1984.

Through the prestige and authority of this office, the Surgeon General can more effectively exhort and educate the public on pervasive health issues. As surgeon general, Novello focused on the health of young people, women, and minorities. She issued reports and spoke out on underage drinking, smoking, drug abuse AIDS (especially among women and adolescents), childhood immunization and injury prevention, and improved health care for Hispanics and other minorities.

One of her most visible and effective campaigns was against tobacco industry advertising aimed at children, especially evident in posters and billboard advertisements that featured the cartoon character "Joe Camel."

Dr. Novello alerted the nation to the rising incidence of AIDS among women and adolescents. Her 1993 report on AIDS, while counseling against promiscuity and drug use, also included instructions on using condoms and cleaning intravenous needles.

During the Gulf War, Dr. Novello expedited the Federal Drug Administration's approval of vaccines for military personnel, for which she was later awarded the Legion of Merit, a military honor, by General Colin Powell.

After serving as Surgeon General, Dr. Novello was a special representative to United Nations Children's Fund from 1993-1996, where she expanded her efforts to address the health and nutritional needs of women, children, and adolescents, to a global scale. From 1996 to 1999 she was visiting professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins School of Health and Hygiene, where she advised on health services for poor communities. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998, Novello organized an unprecedented meeting between Surgeon General David Satcher and seven others, besides herself, who had held the office. In 1999, Governor George Pataki nominated her to be commissioner of health for the state of New York, where she now heads one of the largest public health agencies in the country.

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