Growing up in Puerto Rico, Dr. Antonia Novello suffered from a congenital illness that could be corrected, but only with surgery at a distant hospital that her family could not afford to travel to. Spending summers at a local hospital to get treatment until surgeries at 18 and 20, Novello decided to become a doctor in order to help other sick children, saying “I was one of those kids that got lost in the system of health…when you get lost in the track of medicine, then you want to be somebody that will solve the problems for others.”
Inspired by her mother, a teacher and high school principal, to work hard in school, Novello graduated from high school at 15 and went on to the University of Puerto Rico for medical school. She earned her MD in 1970.
While she was in medical school at the University of Puerto Rico, her favorite aunt died of kidney failure. So she made nephrology, or the study of the kidneys, her specialty at the University of Michigan, where she was the first woman to be named Intern of the Year.
She opened a private pediatric practice in 1976 and during this time, she also worked in pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital. But she found working with severely ill children emotionally taxing, stating “when the pediatrician cries as much as the parents do, then you know it’s time to get out.” She closed her practice a few years later and joined the Public Health Service in 1979 to focus on preventative medicine.
She began her work in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps as a project officer at the National Institutes of Health and she received a master of public health degree from Johns Hopkins in 1982. She also became the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with a focus on pediatric AIDS. Working with a U.S. Senate committee, she helped draft legislation for the Organ Transplantation Procurement Act of 1984.
Novello was appointed Surgeon General of the United States in 1990, becoming the first woman and first Hispanic to serve in that role. She focused largely on awareness of health issues affecting young people, women, and minorities. She campaigned against tobacco industry advertising aimed at children and promoted childhood immunization efforts. She served as surgeon general until 1993, and retired in 2014.
Written by Mary Ratliff