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Puerto Rico Profile: Antonia Novello

March 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Ten years ago this month, Antonia Novello became the Surgeon General of the United States. A native of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Dr. Novello was the first woman, the first Puerto Rican, and the first Hispanic to hold the position that has been called "the symbolic doctor of all Americans."

From the start, Dr. Novello was acutely aware of the importance of her new role. "Being the first woman and minority surgeon general," she said in 1990, "enables me to reach many individuals with my message of empowerment for women, children, and minorities."

Antonia Novello has been dedicated to the medical needs of the weak and powerless for her entire career. She first gained inspiration from the experiences of her own childhood. She was born Antonia Coello on August 23, 1944. When she was eight years old, her father passed away, leaving her mother, a schoolteacher, to support the family. As a child, Antonia suffered from a chronic colon condition, which kept her hospitalized for months at a time. She underwent surgery when she was 18 years old that corrected her condition, but she retained an acute understanding of the pain and loneliness of childhood sickness.

Antonia Coello studied at the University of Puerto Rico, receiving her B.S. in 1965 and her M.D. in 1970. Also in 1970, she married José Novello, a U.S. Navy flight surgeon. Together, they moved to the mainland to continue their medical training at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As an intern at the university’s pediatric nephrology unit, where she treated children with kidney diseases, Antonia Novello experienced a harbinger of future success. She was named Intern of the Year, the first woman at the University of Michigan to gain that distinction.

After several years in Ann Arbor, Dr. Novello moved on to a fellowship at the Department of Pediatrics of Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., followed by several years of private practice in nearby Springfield, Virginia.

In 1978, Dr. Novello began the career in public health that she continues to this day. She joined the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, a mobile unit of doctors and health professionals who work in poor areas, Indian Reservations, and wherever there is a scarcity of medical personnel. The traditional head of the Commissioned Corps is the Surgeon General of the United States.

Dr. Novello was stationed around the Washington, D.C., area throughout the 1980s. She worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where she was Deputy Director and Coordinator for AIDS Research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Dr. Novello also received a Masters degree in Public Health in 1982 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

As part of her service to the nation’s health, Dr. Novello acted on several occasions as an advisor to the United States Congress. She was a major contributor to the drafting of the Organ Transplant Procurement Act of 1984 and lobbied for mandatory warning labels on cigarette packaging.

In 1989, President Bush nominated Antonia Novello to be Surgeon General of the United States. Soon after, Dr. Novello visited her hometown in Puerto Rico, where she was greeted by admirers, including veterans and children from her mother’s school. The experience was revelatory. "I realized that for these people, for women, I have to be good as a doctor, I have to be good as a surgeon general, I have to be everything."

Dr. Novello’s tenure as Surgeon General lasted from 1990-1993, during which time she continued her life’s work for women, children, and minorities. She focussed much attention on the problems of underage drinking and smoking. Alarmed by rising rates of lung cancer in women, she became particularly concerned about discouraging teenage girls from smoking. Dr. Novello also spearheaded the Healthy Children Ready to Learn Initiative, and her work inspired the creation of the National Hispanic/Latino Health Initiative.

While Surgeon General, Dr. Novello worked to raise awareness about the AIDS virus, and especially the plight of children with AIDS. She has continued to address this issue. In 1997, she spoke on a radio program in Puerto Rico about the AIDS crisis on her native island. Puerto Rico has the nation’s third-largest proportion of AIDS cases, after Washington, D.C., and New York State.

Since stepping down as Surgeon General, Dr. Novello has maintained an important presence in the nation’s public health community. From 1993-96, she was the United Nations Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) Special Representative for Health and Nutrition. She returned to Johns Hopkins University in 1996 to act as a Visiting Professor of Health Policy and Management.

Dr. Novello has also become an author. In 1994, she edited a book on Hispanic/Latino health; and more recently she wrote the forward to Salud!: A Latina’s Guide to Total Health — Body, Mind, and Spirit.

Dr. Novello’s advocacy has been recognized and applauded in many ways. In 1998, she received the Award for Leadership at the Hispanic Heritage Awards, an event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Last year, she was named Commissioner of Health for the State of New York, home to the largest number of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico.

In her new job as Health Commissioner, Dr. Novello continues her life’s mission. She is working to provide health care for uninsured children and to establish better care at hospitals in low-income areas. As a newspaper editorialized last year, "New York is lucky to have Antonia Novello."

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