Antonia Coello Novello

Antonia Coello Novello
First woman U.S. Surgeon General

Complications of a congenital illness plagued the childhood of Antonia Novello. She had been born with an abnormal colon, I and had to be hospitalized for about two weeks every summer. She was eighteen years old before a surgical operation was performed to correct her birth defect. But her desire to help others who suffered as she had, and the example of the doctors who had helped her, inspired Novello to become a doctor herself. She became a pediatrician, then a government health-care adviser, and, finally, was appointed the first woman and the first Hispanic surgeon-general of the United States.
Antonia Coello was born on August 23, 1944, in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. When Antonia and her brother were young, their parents divorced. Her mother, a schoolteacher and later principal of a junior high school, took on the responsibility of raising the children. As a teacher, she understood that the road to success in life began with a good education, and she pushed her children to do well in school.
Meanwhile, Antonia, suffering with her colon disorder, began to have secret dreams of becoming a doctor for children. “I never told anyone that I wanted to be that”, she later recalled. “It seemed too grand of a notion”.
But with the support and encouragement of her mother, that grand notion became reality. Antonia enrolled as a premedical student at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. She earned her B.S. degree in 1965, went on to the university’s medical school in San Juan, and received an M.D. degree in 1970. That year, she also married Dr. Joe Novello, a U.S. Navy flight surgeon. The Novellos then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he specialized in child psychiatry, and she began an internship and residency in pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical Center.
The sight of a woman doctor on a hospital ward was not a common one in the early 1970s. But her warm personality and professional competence saw her through any difficult times. In 1971, she became the first woman to be named Intern of the Year by the University of Michigan’s pediatrics department.
Then, personal experience with illness once again inspired her career choice. Dr. Novello’s favorite aunt died of kidney failure at the age of thirty-two. Dr. Novello became interested in kidney disease. She promised herself that nobody in her family would ever again “fall through a crack” in the health care system as her aunt had. She went on to specialize in childhood kidney disorders. After completing her training in Michigan and at Georgetown University, she joined the staff of Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. One year later, she joined a private practice of pediatrics in Springfield, Virginia.
In 1978, Dr. Novello decided it was time to leave private practice. She had seen too many cases that, as a private physician, she was powerless to help. She recalled many days when she monitored young patients waiting to be helped by the health care system, and was dismayed at how many slipped through the cracks of hospital and government rules and regulations. She decided that by entering government service, she could make a more significant contribution.
Since her husband was a navy doctor, she thought she might join the navy, but a male captain ended that idea at her job interview. “Didn’t you hear?” he asked. “The navy’s looking for a few good men”. Dr. Novello then turned to the United States Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health and was hired as a project officer for the artificial kidney program at the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Dr. Novello made her greatest contributions in the field of public health. In 1982, she earned a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. Since then, her government career has prospered. In 1982 and 1983, she was a U.S. Congress fellow assigned to the Labor and Human Resources Committee. She had a large influence on drafting the National Organ Procurement and Transplantation Act of 1984. By 1986, she had become deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In this position, she became especially interested in children with AIDS. Then, in 1989, President George Bush nominated her to became surgeon general, with a rank equivalent to vice admiral in the U.S. Navy. Congress confirmed her appointment in 1990, and she was sworn in on March 9, 1990, by another first — Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
As surgeon general, Dr. Novello gave special attention to issues pertaining to women and children. She was particularly active in the areas of teenage drinking, childhood vaccinations, AIDS, and cigarette smoking among the young. In 1992, she took on the powerful tobacco industry and singled out the cartoon character Joe Camel. The character was used to advertise Camel cigarettes, and it succeeded in encouraging smoking among young people. She also rallied against the powerful alcohol industry and their advertisements that contained misleading information about alcohol and youth.
After President Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993, Dr. Novello stepped down as surgeon general. She then turned her public health talents to the world stage and became the special representative to the Executive Director for health and nutrition at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In this position, she continued to make important contributions to the health of children and women and served as a role model for both Hispanics and women. Dr. Novello is currently a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health.

More detailed information can be found in the "Extraordinary Women of Medicine" Darlene R.Stille, and issued by The Children's Press  in the USA.
Information should be used just for educational purposes.


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