Dr. Antonia Novello is a physician and public health administrator. She was appointed the 14th Surgeon General of the United States and became the first woman and first Hispanic to hold the title. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we highlight Novello’s notable contributions to women in medicine and commemorate her career accomplishments as one of our influential women in history.
Dr. Antonia Novello was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico on August 23, 1944. She’s the oldest of three siblings. After her father passed away at eight years old, her mother primarily raised her. Novello was diagnosed with Congenital Megacolon at birth which is a condition that involves missing nerve cells in the large intestine. It took eighteen years for her to receive adequate surgery. This ultimately inspired her to become a doctor so that no patient in the future would experience the same obstacles.
In 1965, Novello received her B.S. from the University of Puerto Rico, followed by her M.D. in 1970. Afterward, she completed her pediatric neurology training at The University of Michigan and Georgetown University. Following, she received her Masters in Public Health from John Hopkins University in 1982 and Doctor of Public Health in 2000.
After completing her post-secondary education, Novello started her career as a Pediatric Nephrologist. She quickly realized that Pediatrics was too emotionally tolling. Ultimately, she decided that it wasn’t the specialty she wanted to pursue.
Public Health Service
She worked in private practice and joined the U.S. Public Health Service in 1979. Throughout the 1980s, she held various roles at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, including coordinator followed by Deputy Director for AIDS research.
In 1990, George H.W. Bush appointed her 14th Surgeon General making her the first woman and first Hispanic to hold the title. As Surgeon General, she focused heavily on women with AIDS and neonatal transmission of HIV as we recognized an important need for it. She raised awareness to other issues such as Hispanics and Latinos participating in health issues, the domestic violence epidemic in America, underage drinking, and alcohol abuse. Some of her other notable contributions included the launch of early childhood health initiatives and promoting immunization and childhood injury prevention.
From 1993-1996, Dr. Novello was a special representative to the United Nations Children’s Fund, where she elevated the conversation on the nutritional needs of women, children, and adolescents. From 1996-1999, she was a visiting professor of health policy and management at John Hopkins School of Health and Hygiene, where she received her Masters in Public Health.
From 1999-2006, Novello headed a public health agency in New York, one of the largest in the country. From 2008-2014, Novella held the role of Vice President of Women and Children Health and Policy Affairs at Disney Children’s Hospital in Orlando, Florida.
After receiving many honorable awards throughout her career, Dr. Antonia Novello was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. As of December 2014, she retired as Executive Director of Public Health Policy at Florida Hospital in Orlando and is still alive today. She currently resides in the Washington D.C. area with her husband whose a psychiatrist.
Women’s History Month
Dr. Antonia Novella dedicated her career to the health of women, children, and minorities. She’s one of the influential women in history who inspired us with her empathy and dedication to service. As a Puerto Rican woman, Novello broke down many barriers. Today, we continue to celebrate her accomplishments for women in medicine.