A native of Puerto Rico, Antonia Novello dedicated herself to helping people who suffer from poor health after her own childhood experience with illness. She translated that commitment into a lifelong career in medicine and public health, which culminated in her appointment as Surgeon General of the United States.
Novello was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, where she and her brother were raised by their divorced mother. As a young girl, Novello suf¬ fered from a painful congenital colon condition, which was not corrected until she was eighteen. The experience gave her a desire to help other people who suffered from health problems.
After earning her M.D. from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine in 1970, Novello moved to Michigan. She studied nephrology at the University of Michigan Medical Center. After completing a fellowship there and another at Georgetown University, she worked in private practice as a pediatrician in Springfield, Virginia.
In 1978, Novello joined the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. She later earned a master’s degree in public health from the John Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Novello also worked as a consultant to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, and she was involved in the drafting and enactment of legislation on organ transplants and cigarette warning labels.
Over the next several years, Novello climbed the ranks of the National Institute of Health (NIH), becoming the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) by 1986. During this time, she developed an interest in children with AIDS.
In 1990, U.S. president George Bush appointed Novello Surgeon General of the United States after the retirement of C. Everett Koop. She was the first Hispanic and the first woman to hold the post, and she faced high expectations based on the tenure of her popu¬ lar and outspoken predecessor. Novello’s appointment was also controversial because of her opposition to abortion.
She soon established her own identity and silenced her critics. Her tenure as surgeon gen¬ eral was noted for its emphasis on a number of important children’s and women’s health issues, such as AIDS prevention, immuniza¬ tion, and underage drinking and smoking. Most notably, she spoke out strongly against the slick marketing of tobacco and alcohol products to teenagers.
Novello held the post of surgeon general until 1993. She then served as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Special Representative for Health and Nutrition, and she returned to teaching at Johns Hopkins University. She was appointed Commissioner of Health for the State of New York in 1999.