Novello, Antonia (1944—)

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Novello, Antonia (1944—)

American physician who was surgeon general of the United States from 1990 to 1993. Born Antonia Coello on August 23, 1944, in Fajardo, Puerto Rico; oldest of three children of Antonio Coello and Ana Delia Coello (a school principal); University of Puerto Rico, B.S., 1965, M.D., 1970; pediatric training at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan; training and residency in pediatric nephrology at the University of Michigan Medical Center (1973–74), and Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, D.C. (1974–75); Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, M.A., 1982; married Joseph Novello (a psychiatrist), in 1970; no children.

On March 9, 1990, Antonia Novello took the oath of office as the first woman and the first Hispanic surgeon general of the United States, embarking on a mission to "protect, improve, and advance the health of all the American people." Appointed to the office by President George Bush, and replacing the often outspoken and controversial C. Everett Koop, Novello was decidedly more diplomatic and nurturing than her predecessor in pursuing her own special interests, which included providing health care for minorities, women, and children, and protecting the nation's youth from the dangers of tobacco and alcohol. In 1993, Novello was replaced by President Bill Clinton's appointee Joycelyn Elders and went on to serve as a special representative to UNICEF.

Antonia Coello Novello was born in 1944 in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, the eldest of three children. Born with a dysfunctional colon, and in and out of hospitals until she was 18, she dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, a goal supported by her mother, the long-time principal of a local junior high school. Novello received both her B.S. and M.D. degrees from the University of Puerto Rico, then continued her training in pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical Center and at Georgetown University Hospital. In 1982, she added to her already formidable credentials by receiving a master's degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. In the summer of 1987, she attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where she participated in a program for senior managers.

For two years beginning in 1976, Novello had a private practice in pediatrics and nephrology in Springfield, Virginia, but she gave it up when she became too emotionally involved with her young patients. She then went to work for the U.S. Public Health Service, serving as a project officer in the artificial kidney and chronic uremia programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She quickly worked her way up through the ranks and in 1986 was named deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the top positions at the NIH. During the four years she held that position, she also worked on Capitol Hill, serving as a legislation fellow with the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. As a fellow, she contributed to the drafting and enactment of the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, and also helped draft the labels for cigarette packages that warn of the dangers of smoking.

No one was more surprised than Novello when she was nominated for surgeon general. Unlike that of her predecessor, Novello's nomination and confirmation hearing proceeded smoothly, although she was rigorously quizzed on the abortion issue to determine that she shared the administration's anti-abortion policy. "Having been born with a congenital defect makes me think that everything has a chance to live," she told confirmation committee members, but later said in an interview that she preferred not to discuss the issue. "Women have to move a little bit away from abortion as the only important issue to tackle." At her swearing-in ceremony, Novello's comments reflected both her immense pride of accomplishment and her sense of humor. "The American dream is alive and well today," she said. "West Side Story comes to the West Wing."

Novello's background and training made her particularly sensitive to the health-related problems of women, children, and minorities, and in her two-and-a-half years in office she made those issues a priority. She was especially zealous in attempting to lower the numbers of children who started smoking, and to that end targeted the tobacco industry. In March 1992, she made headlines when she held a joint news conference with James S. Todd, the executive vice-president of the American Medical Association, to urge R.J. Reynolds to withdraw its ads featuring the cartoon character Joe Camel. Novello also expressed concern about the growing number of women smokers. "Call it a case of the Virginia Slims woman catching up with the Marlboro Man," she told an interviewer for the Republican Woman (February–March 1991). Novello was equally tough on the alcohol industry for misinforming, misleading, and targeting youth. She particularly criticized ads that "make drinking look like the key to fun and a wonderful and carefree lifestyle."

Novello viewed the increasingly reported incidents of domestic violence as another issue of public health, calling it "a cancer that gnaws at the body and soul of the American family," and urging more research into an effective way to curb the violence. She also advocated expanded educational programs for AIDS and for the prevention of childhood and work-related injuries, and expressed concern about the serious deficiencies in the health care of Hispanic-Americans.

Novello has been characterized as dynamic, fast-thinking, and extremely approachable, "Mother Teresa meets Margaret Thatcher ," said her husband Joseph Novello, a psychiatrist who at one time hosted a popular radio talk show. As surgeon general, she attempted to unlock bureaucratic channels, to "remove fear, open doors, listen, educate, assist. I know that if I make good sense and I'm understood, people might be willing to make some good changes," she told an interviewer.

Novello's career has been peppered with honors and awards. She is the recipient of the Public Health Service Surgeon General's Exemplary Service Medal and Medallion, the Public Health Service Meritorious Service Medal, and the Achievement Award of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women. Since 1986, concurrent with her other posts, Novello has been a clinical professor of pediatrics at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. She is also the author of more than 75 articles and chapters of books pertaining to her medical specialty.


Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1992.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts