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Antonia Novello


Antonia Coello Novello, M.D.

…was the first female to become Surgeon General of the United States. She served from 1990 to 1993. She became the New York Health Commissioner in 1999 to 2006. She continues to work in healthcare helping children and families.

Novello was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico on August 23, 1944. As a young girl, she had inherited a painful colon condition. When she was eighteen, Novello had an operation to correct this condition, something that would incite her dream to become a doctor and help ease the suffering of others.

Soon, Novello received an undergraduate degree and her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico, where she was considered one of their brightest students. While in school, Novello's mother would not let her work because her mother felt that once she got out into the workforce, it would sidetrack her from her studies.

Novello's first work came as a medical internship and residency in pediatrics from 1970 through 1973 at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. She decided to specialize in disorders of the kidney in children, later becoming a fellow in pediatric nephrology. During her tenure at the University of Michigan, Novello was in a position to see the disastrous consequences of a poor public health policy, particularly in neighborhoods that lacked access to medical assistance.

This motivated her to continue her education in public health at John Hopkins University to earn her masters degree in 1982. With her solid education in public health policy helped Novello move forward in her career. She joined the National Institutes of Health and became a clinical professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University, cementing a marriage of children's issues and health policy Dr. Owen Rennert, one of Novello's colleagues remarked that she "is tremendously concerned about the medical and social problems of children and she has a way of drawing others into that concern."

Novello's growing knowledge in public health policy made her an excellent fit for lawmakers. In 1982, she became a Congressional fellow and advisor to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Senator Orrin Hatch reported that she had "given good advice on several bills." Her success in this arena, combined with other political factors and great timing resulted in her nomination and appointment as Surgeon General in the Bush administration.

The Surgeon General is a member of the president's cabinet and acts as the president's chief medical advisor. The role of the Surgeon General is to promote health and wellness across the nation and Novello did exactly that, focusing her efforts on AIDS-infected children, teenage drinking, mental illness, smoking and breast cancer. Speaking across the nation, Novello was a champion for children and Americans without health insurance.

In 1991, she met with several of the largest beer and wine companies in the United States and asked them to stop marketing to teenagers. In 1993, Novello attempted to address health problems in the Hispanic American community. She pointed out that tuberculosis rates in Hispanics are four times the U.S. average. Hispanics also represent one-fifth of AIDS sufferers in the U.S., yet the majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are without health insurance. The success of Novella was from her education and perseverance in continually working and reaching higher goals.

Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp, Latinas! Women of Achievement, Visible Ink Press (Detroit), 1996.

Nicholas E. Meyer, The Bibliographical Dictionary of Hispanic Americans, Facts on File, Inc. (New York), 1997.

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