Novello, Antonia

September 17, 2011

Born in 1944 in a small town in Puerto Rico, Antonia Novello experienced the hardships of pain and disease early in life. Like many who go on to do great works, rather than breaking her, the challenges she faced shaped her character. Her father died when she was 8 and her childhood was overshadowed by illness. She had an abnormality of the colon that was not fully corrected until she was 20 years old. Overlooked by the public health system in Puerto Rico and hospitalized every summer, she learned firsthand what it is like to be a helpless patient. Through these experiences came the desire to be a doctor. Not only did she become a physician, she specialized in health problems of children and adolescents and has dedicated her life to the service of public health.

Dr. Novello finished high school at age 15, entered medical school at age 20, and graduated in 1970. She began her career in medicine, excelling immediately. She was named “Intern of the Year” by the University of Michigan for her work in pediatric nephrology, the first woman to receive that honor. She did a fellowship in pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, and then spent a few years in private practice.

In 1978, she began her career in public health. She joined the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, headed by the U.S. Surgeon General. The Commissioned Corps works in poor areas, on Indian Reservations, or wherever there is a scarcity of medical personnel. In 1982 she received a master’s degree in public health (MPH). She became deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, where she was an influential spokesperson for children with AIDS. She was a major contributor to the drafting of the Organ Transplant Procurement Act of 1984, and she was integral in lobbying for mandatory warning labels on cigarette packaging.

In 1989, when AIDS had become fully recognized as a national and worldwide health crisis, Dr. Novello was nominated as Surgeon General of the United States by the then president, George H. Bush. She served in that capacity from 1990 to 1993, having the special distinction of being the first woman and the first Hispanic to be the Surgeon General. As the country’s lead physician she continued to work on issues surrounding children, women, and minorities. She brought attention to the problems of underage drinking and smoking; she worked to raise awareness about the AIDS virus, especially the plight of children with AIDS. She was the first Surgeon General to bring the issue of domestic violence as a public health concern into the national spotlight. Because of her efforts, the medical community is more aligned with legal and social support services in the effort to end abuse against women. She acknowledged violence among young people as a public health issue, recognizing that those at highest risk are largely the poor and minorities.

After her tenure as Surgeon General, Dr. Novello served as a Special Representative for Health and Nutrition for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and in 1996 was a visiting professor of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University. She has received numerous awards, including the U.S. Public Health Service Achievement Award and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Medal. She has edited a book on Hispanic/ Latino health and is the author of the foreword to Salud!: A Latina’s Guide to Total Health—Body, Mind, and Spirit. In 1999, she became the Health Commissioner of the State of New York, the first Hispanic to hold that position. There she continues to advocate for children, adolescents, and families. She has worked toward solutions for the medically uninsured, teen pregnancy, underage smoking, substance abuse, AIDS, and vaccination shortages. She continues to spend energy on reducing domestic violence, increasing organ donation, and pushing for clean air legislation.

In a commencement speech given by Dr. Novello in 1992 at Providence College, she encouraged graduates to set their goals high but to plan realistically and thoughtfully, and to remember that while “getting there” is important, how you get there is what matters most. She endorsed that failure can be a useful experience, because what is learned along the way is what will shape your life; that each person, in spite of the odds, has the most wonderful opportunity to make a difference. Dr. Novello has certainly made a difference with her life.

SEE ALSO: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, Adolescence, Domestic violence, Latinos

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